Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 - 1569) was a Netherlandish artist who worked primarily in Antwerp and Brussels and is known for his pioneering work in landscape, images of folk culture, and allegories. The earliest sources that mention him are Ludovico Guicciardini’s 1567 Description of the Low Countries and, more extensively, Karel van Mander’s account of his life in his Schilderboek of 1604. He is the father of Pieter Brueghel the younger (b. 1564) and Jan Brueghel (b. 1568), both of whom also became artists of note. Both sons adopted a spelling of their family name that included an “h”; their father had used both spellings.
Little is known of Bruegel’s early life before he entered the Guild of St. Luke’s in Antwerp as a master painter in 1551. The date of this entry has led scholars to surmise that he was born sometime between 1525 and 1530, though his place of birth is uncertain. Even his earliest biographers disagree about his birthplace; Van Mander suggests he was born in a town called Brueghel in Noord-Brabant, while Guicciardini claims that he hailed from nearby Breda.
According to Van Mander, as a young man Bruegel was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, an accomplished painter, designer of tapestry and stained glass, and humanist who operated a workshop in Antwerp. Coecke was well-connected in the artistic and intellectual circles of the Low Countries. His brother-in-law was the painter Jan van Amstel while his wife, Mayken Verhulst, was a water-colorist and member of an extended family involved in tapestry design and water-color painting. In his large workshop, Coecke employed artists to paint background landscapes in his altarpieces and devotional panels, and it has been suggested that Bruegel may have filled this role while he was training as an apprentice. Bruegel would later marry Coecke’s daughter Maria (Mayken) in 1563, establishing himself within an artistic clan that also had ties to Brussels. While Coecke’s style reflected his taste for Italian classicism and his travels in the Mediterranean, Pieter Bruegel seems to have inherited little of that influence from him. The work of Coecke’s brother-in-law, Jan van Amstel, may have had a more profound impact on the young artist. Van Amstel’s positioning of landscape and figures, use of diluted colors, and typical subject matter of secular revelry, would later be reflected in the work of Bruegel.
In 1551, less than a year after his master’s death, Bruegel was officially registered as a master in St. Luke’s guild. Though he may still have been tied to Coecke’s workshop, there is evidence that he was already collaborating with other artists at this time. Hs is listed in 1551 as employed in the workshop of Claude Dorizi, an artist and art dealer based in Mechelen. Here he collaborated on an altarpiece for the Glovemaker’s guild with Pieter Baltens, to whom Bruegel probably took a subordinate role. Though the work is lost today, descriptions state that Baltens worked on the central panel of the altarpiece, while Bruegel painted the local saints Rombout and Gomarius on the wings in grisaille.
Shortly after becoming a master artist, Bruegel headed for Italy by way of Lyons and the Mt. Cenis pass, possibly accompanied by artist Martin de Vos. Many Flemish artists at this time travelled to Rome, but Bruegel journeyed further into Southern Italy than most, perhaps even witnessing the Turkish attack on Reggio in Calabria in 1552, as his drawing View of Reggio di Calabria suggests. From there, he likely crossed to Messina in Sicily, and thence to Palermo, where a 1446 fresco in the Palazzo Sclàfani may have inspired him to later paint his Triumph of Death. Some of his earliest extant drawings, such as Southern Cloister in a Valley, further locate his travels in Southern Italy in 1552, and it is possible that he also stopped in Bologna and visited geographer Scipio Fabius who, like Bruegel, was a friend of humanist and cartographer Abraham Ortelius.
From 1553-1554, Bruegel was in Rome, as is attested by the inscriptions on two later etchings based on sketches Bruegel made of the Roman Port of Ripa Grande and Tivoli. While in Rome, Bruegel met and collaborated with Giulio Clovio, a Croatian miniaturist whose 1577 inventory states that he owned several (now lost) works by Bruegel, including a View of Lyons in gouache, a Tower of Babel painted on ivory, a study of a tree, two landscapes, and a miniature that was the product of collaboration between Clovio and Bruegel, with Bruegel likely producing the landscape to accompany figures by Clovio. Bruegel’s earliest extant signed painting, Christ on the Sea of Tiberius of 1553, was painted in Rome possibly for a local patron, and it reflects the popular taste in Italy for Flemish landscape in the style of Patinir, although the figures, painted by another hand, are thoroughly Italianate.
While most Netherlandish artists who travelled to Italy went to study Classical and Renaissance art in order to improve their own, Bruegel seems to have drawn more from the landscapes that he encountered than from the art and architecture. However, certain classical elements did find their way into his works, most notably his Tower of Babel paintings of 1563, in which the towers were modelled upon the Colosseum in Rome. Italian examples of landscape art, particularly those by Domenico Campagnola, may have inspired him to experiment with different compositional techniques. On his journey home in 1554, Bruegel sketched from life numerous views of Alpine mountain ranges, some of which appear to be somewhat topographically accurate. Van Mander colorfully describes Breugel’s alpine inspiration by saying he “swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again, after his return, onto his canvases and panels” and indeed Bruegel’s later engravings and paintings reflect the landscapes he observed during his travels outside of the Low Countries.
In 1554 Bruegel returned to Antwerp, which was still experiencing its golden age as the richest mercantile metropolis in all of Western Europe. The trade opportunities and newly inaugurated stock exchange attracted wealthy foreign merchants and skilled artists and artisans alike from across Europe. Its rapidly expanding population and the emergence of a merchant middle class fueled the flowering publishing industry and growing art market, allowing humanism to thrive. Over three hundred artists were working in Antwerp in the mid-sixteenth century, and this resulted in specialization by artists in certain genres of paintings, which were for the first time being purchased in market stalls at the Pand and later the Beurs.
There, in this thriving port city, Bruegel began to work for Hieronymous Cock with whom Bruegel would have a collaborative partnership until his death in 1569. Cock, an engraver himself, was the owner of a successful publishing house known as At the Sign of the Four Winds; there, he orchestrated artistic partnerships between engravers and print designers. Pieter Bruegel was one from the latter group. His first design for Cock was likely a landscape depicting a forest with bears which was later transformed by Cock into an engraving of the Temptation of Christ. During the beginning phases of his publishing venture, Cock dedicated many of his prints to Antoine Perrenot, Cardinal Granvelle, in order to acquire favor among the ruling elite. Perrenot in following years would become one of Bruegel’s most prominent patrons and the owner of the Flight into Egypt (1563).
The eight or so years Bruegel spent in Antwerp were ones marked both by his prolific production as Cock’s collaborative partner and by his independent artistic growth. Between 1555 and 1562, Bruegel composed over forty designs to be engraved in Cock’s shop including The Big Fish Eat the Little Fish and the allegorical series Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues. It was in these early works that Bruegel exploited his reputation as the “second Bosch” and experimented with a highly detailed and colloquial style.
During this same period, in 1557, Bruegel’s first secure signed and dated painting Landscape with Parable of the Sower appeared. This was the first of roughly forty known painted works Bruegel would produce. Though there is evidence that Bruegel had pupils, it is not clear that he had assistants who would have worked with him on the paintings created throughout his decade-long career. Nearing the end of the decade, Bruegel began to further develop his vernacular style; The Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (1559), and Children’s Games (1560) all thematize Flemish custom and folklore.
In 1562 Bruegel moved to Brussels where he married Maria van Aelst and where he would remain for the rest of his life. Once in the court city, Bruegel’s position in the art world did not diminish; in fact, his relocation marks a transition into a period of even greater development of his own artistic character. He began to shift his emphasis from small-scale prints–effectively decreasing the volume of collaborative works created with Cock–to the production of large-scale paintings. In the same year he moved to Brussels, he painted at least five works, three of which were of the new, larger sort. Dulle Griet, Fall of the Rebel Angels, The Triumph of Death were painted in 1562; though the last was not dated, its stylistic proximity to the other two suggest that its production was contemporaneous. As in his work as a print designer, as a painter, Bruegel produced a tremendous number of complex original works in a short period of time; in the six years between his move to Brussels and his death he painted about thirty of the forty or so painted works in his corpus.
Bruegel’s lasting renown and intensified individual production is perhaps best evidenced by the continuous patronage of his elite Antwerp clients. One year after his move, in 1563, he painted a Tower of Babel, probably the one owned by Nicolaes Jonghelinck, an Antwerp merchant who followed Bruegel’s work with abiding interest. Bruegel, though based in Brussels, was still commissioned by Jonghelinck in 1565 to paint the Twelve Months series for his home in the suburbs of Antwerp. Like Jonghelinck, many of Bruegel’s other Antwerp patrons from both intellectual circles and the Antwerp Mint commissioned and acquired major works from Bruegel after 1563.
In the latter portion of his life Bruegel produced many of the works that earned him the name “peasant Bruegel;” during this period he painted among others many paintings depicting peasant weddings and kermises. His fascination with regional culture first present in the history paintings from the earlier portion of his career was at this time transformed into vibrant compositions depicting rustic celebratory custom. Completed in 1566, The Wedding Dance is an example of Bruegel’s late style and a touchstone for dating other peasant works; The Wedding Banquet and The Village Kermis are not dated, but their subject matter and the presence of large figures in the foreground suggest that they were produced around the same time as The Wedding Dance.
Similarly, in this period Bruegel transposed biblical narratives into the visual language of contemporary Flemish life. Many of these paintings seem to confront the religious and political conflict surrounding the 1566 Iconoclasm and the Northern Netherlands’ eventual break from Spain. In the paintings Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7), The Conversion of Saul (1567), and The Census at Bethlehem (1566), The Sermon of St. John the Baptist (1566) figure religious history as modern political strife. The former two seem to interpret the militaristic violence suffered by the low countries at the hands of Spanish armies; Massacre of the Innocents visualizes one disturbing instance of Spanish brutality while The Conversion of Saul, which is thought to depict the Duke of Alba crossing the Alps on his path to quiet dissent in the Netherlands, points to an impending assault. The Census at Bethlehem and The Sermon of St. John the Baptist focus on the quotidian frustrations of living under Spanish rule in the midst of the Reformation, critiquing bureaucratic inefficiency and roving priests respectively. According to van Mander, in the 1560s Bruegel asked Mayken to burn several of his works after his death. Though van Mander assumes, and some scholars have agreed, that this was in effort to conceal subversive works, it also seems possible that there were other reasons for Bruegel’s request.
Bruegel died in 1569 and was buried in Notre Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels. For the altar above his tomb, almost fifty years later, his son Jan commissioned friend and famed painter Peter Rubens to paint The Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter. Pieter Bruegel was remembered in laudatory prints and panegyrics and perhaps most poignantly by Abraham Ortelius in his own friendship book.
All dated to 1568, The Magpie on the Gallows, The Parable of the Blind, The Misanthropist, The Beggars, and the Three Soldiers are the last of Bruegel’s works to survive. Other works and templates that remained in his studio at the time of his death would later serve as models for imitations made by his son Pieter the Younger, and variants by his younger son Jan. Though much of Bruegel’s work was in possession of private collectors by the time Pieter the Younger began his artistic practice, his reproductions provide evidence of what materials remained in his father’s workshop. His exacting imitations, which were scaled to his father’s works, employed similar color palettes and arrangement of figures, indicating that Bruegel may have left behind in his studio cartoons, compositional drawings, figure sketches, and preparatory studies with guides to coloration and light patterns. Pieter the Younger was thus able to cater to a market hungry for images by Bruegel, and to a cultural nostalgia for Antwerp’s “Golden Age.”
--Cecily Manson & Jeannette Sturman
Alexander Wied and Hans J. Van Miegroet. "Bruegel." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
Christina Curry and Dominique Allart, The Brueg[h]el Phenomenon: paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, with a special focus on technique and copying practice (Brussels, Belgium: Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 2012)
Larry Silver, Pieter Bruegel (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2011).