There is very little documentary information about Pieter Bruegel, not even his exact birth date – perhaps 1526 – or his training have been ascertained. According to Van Mander he had been a pupil of Pieter Coecke in Brussels. Coecke was an educated artist who had traveled to Italy and Turkey, he worked as a painter and tapestry designer, architect and translator of Vitruvius and Serlius. The first certain date in Bruegel’s life is 1551 when he was registered in the guild of St. Luke in Antwerp under the name «Peeter Brueghels». The following year he made a trip to France and Italy as we can see from some drawings of various places on the peninsula. Landscapes were the primary theme of his early works that can be definitely attributed, such as the Parabola of the Sower, the first painting that is signed and dated (1557). That same year Bruegel made the series of copper engravings of the Seven Deadly Sins. The painting, Children Playing was done in 1560. Although there is no confirmation, it is quite likely that in 1562 the artist traveled to Amsterdam and to Besançon. In the summer of 1563 he married Mayeken Coecke, the daughter of the artist presumed to be his teacher. One of Bruegel’s most famous paintings dates from the year of his marriage, The Tower of Babel. Their first child, Pieter – who also became a painter – was born in 1564. To distinguish him from his father the critics called him Pieter Bruegel the Younger. Between 1565 and 1568 he painted some of his most renowned works: the series dedicated to the Months, The Land of Plenty and The Peasant Wedding. His second son, Jean known as “dei Velluti,” was born in 1568. Pieter Bruegel the Elder died the following year and was buried in the church of Notre-Dame de la Chapelle.
The Temptation of St. Anthony
This is the oldest of Bruegel’s surviving works. It was printed by Hieronymus Cock – the most important publisher in Antwerp – in 1556. Here we can still see Bruegel’s close ties to the fantastic world of Bosch, that some scholars have interpreted as the fruit of a precise calculation that may have been suggested by Mr. Cock himself. Part of the composition, and specifically the archer on the right, can be found in Bosch’s painting, The Temptations of St. Anthony (Galleria Colonna, Rome), while the figure of the saint bears a close resemblance to the 1510 painting that is in the Prado.Iconography
The Fall of Icarus
The inspiration from the Metamorphosis by Ovid is obvious even if the literary text was a pretext for a narration surrounded by a landscape of hills and water. Some scholars have interpreted this painting in an alchemical key: the sun depicted at dawn would represent the apparition of the philosopher’s gold and perhaps alludes to the labyrinth that was an important symbol for the alchemists. The sea would symbolize Mercury – a hazard for the novice alchemist; the vessel would be the crucible. The fall of Icarus would stand for the precipitation of a volatile substance. The ploughman would be the symbol of agriculture that the “philosophers” compared to alchemy. The shepherd looking at the sky would allude to Hermes who was a shepherd in his youth. The painting, that was included in seventeenth century imperial inventories, came to its current home in 1912 when it was purchased on the London antiques market.Iconography
This painting was inspired by Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Adagia (1500) a collection of approximately eight hundred examples illustrating the precarious equilibrium of mankind between wisdom and folly. Bruegel’s great skill is revealed in the unitary organization of a scene containing almost one hundred and twenty warnings taken from the folk wisdom that define a symbolic universe that is, a topsy-turvy world. In fact, this painting could well be the one mentioned in a 1668 inventory of the property of Peter Stevans of Antwerp (who had eleven paintings by Bruegel), entitled Le Monde reverse, représenté par plusieurs proverbes et Moralités.
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
The clash between Carnival and Lent is portrayed in the two figures with diametrically opposing physical features. In the foreground, towards the left, is Carnival, thickset and fat, straddling a barrel, with a soft of loaf on his head and a skewer in hand, being shoved by a masquerader with sausages over his shoulder and a funnel on his head. Even the entourage is in fancy dress holding various musical instruments. Lent, on the right, has an beehive on his head, recalling the honey of the fast days, he is holding a baker’s shovel with two herrings and his cart is being drawn by a monk and a nun. Behind them we see Lenten activities and a “review” of the period’s food customs of the period such as buying fish. On the left are two farces that were traditionally performed during that period of the year: Dishonorable Bride in front of the tavern, and the Fight between Orson and Valentine (taken from the Carolingian cycle). In the center we see the typical activities of the Easter period, such as spring cleaning.
Triumph of Death
This is a typically Medieval subject that the artist tackled by making reference to various iconographic themes: the danse macabre, the horseman of the Apocalypse (the mounted skeleton holding a sickle) and the resurrection of the dead symbolized by the skeleton in the distance who is emerging from the grave. Other motifs are also taken from Bosch, such as the lovers or the scene with the mean being dragged off the bridge that refers to the tradition of the “bridge of souls”, and the description of the punishment of the proud. The concept of the vanity of things is symbolized by the dice and card games. Mentioned for the first time in the 1614 inventory of Philips Valckenisse of Antwerp, it reappeared in the inventory of the Palacio de Sant’Ildefonso in 1774 from where it went to the Prado in 1827.
The Fall of the Rebel Angels
This painting, that is signed and data on the bottom left, was purchased for the museum in 1846 and attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Younger. Then, it was attributed to Bosch until the original signature beneath the frame was revealed. The theme is handled in the traditional manner: in the center is the Archangel Michael, assisted by the faithful angels armed with swords and trumpets, fighting against the rebel angels who have been transformed into hybrid monsters, part human and part fish, birds, amphibians or other subjects interpreted as symbols of vice. Although there seems to be an obvious reference to Bosch’s repertory, Bruegel presents these elements with a lucid sense of order in the apparent chaos. The artist, in fact, used a more modern compositional arrangement, as in Dürer’s works and the Apocalypse (by Franz Floris, 1554) in the cathedral of Antwerp, the city where Pieter lived until 1563.
The Tower of Babel
Van Mander wrote that Bruegel painted two Towers of Babel that were in the possession of the Emperor Rudolf II at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The painter had conceived the large painting as an allegory of pride and the frailty of things human. The grandiose structure seen from above seems to squash the city where it stands with its enormous weight, but it also conveys a sense of anxiety because of its precarious state and incompleteness. In designing his tower – that was inspired by the Coliseum in Rome, Bruegel revealed a specific interest in structural matters. In The Tower of Babel the painter combined the meticulousness of the analysis with extraordinary broad vision and lucidity with which the deep landscape is rendered.Iconography
olio su tavola; 115 x 161
Anversa, Museum Mayer van der Bergh
La grande composizione ripropone i motivi disseminati da Bosch intorno alla figura della strega corazzata che cammina verso la bocca dell’inferno: esseri mostruosi e ibridi, lotte e sconcezze. Non tutta la critica è concorde nella lettura del soggetto. Alcuni studiosi ritengono che il quadro raffiguri la malvagità femminile disposta ad aggrapparsi perfino all’inferno, altri ritengono che si tratti della rappresentazione dell’avarizia, tema assai caro a Bruegel. Ma la maggiore parte ritiene che il dipinto vada letto come un’allegoria alchemica. L’azione di Griet sarebbe analoga a quella dell’alchimista che procede verso il fuoco con la spada in pugno, cioè starebbe affrontando la discesa agli inferi raccomandata dai testi alchemici agli adepti: numerosi elementi confermerebbero tale ipotesi,come la barca con la sfera, il pollo arrosto, e altri. Ricordato negli inventari secenteschi del Hradschin di Praga, fu rubato dagli svedesi nel sacco del 1648. Del quadro si perdono le tracce sino all’Ottocento, quando fu acquistato dal Van der Bergh.
The Procession to Calvary
Signed and dated in the lower right, the composition with its over five hundred figures, is set on a hill dominated by the cliff with the windmill. In the long and disorderly procession we can see the red clothes of the gendarmes. The main episode is almost lost in the seething crowd even if Christ bearing the cross is in the middle. The themes are the inconsolable grief of Mary who weeps, surrounded by the pious women, and the total obtuseness of the people before the sacrifice of the Son of God. In 1565 the painting was already in the Jonghelinck collection, and it reappeared in the Viennese Schatzkammer in 1748. It was taken to Paris along with the rest of the Napoleonic booty and remained there until 1815.Iconography
The Adoration of the Magi
In 1890 this painting was part of a Viennese collection, in 1900 it belonged to Georg Roth who sold it to the National Gallery in London in 1921. The first surprising aspect of the painting is the vertical arrangement that is contrary to Bruegel’s almost exclusive predilection for the horizontal. The action seems to be concentrated on a few figures, an evident similarity with Italian painting. It is impossible not to notice a curious mix of awkwardness, astonishment and irony in the sometimes grotesque figures, like the king on the left, the curious bespectacled man on the right, or the man who is whispering something into Joseph’s ear.Iconography
Hunters in the Snow
This is one of a cycle of paintings portraying the seasons of the year that is now scattered between Vienna, Prague and New York. Perhaps the series was originally conceived to be twelve paintings, or six depicting two months each. When the paintings reached the Antwerp Town Hall (1594) there were only six and a later inventory (1659) listed only five – those that are still extant today. This painting is almost certainly dedicated to December and this is confirmed by a comparison with a miniature in the Grimiani Breviary that depicts the same slaughtered pig for the month of December. The painter effectively rendered the cold silence that weighs on snow-shrouded nature, but he also gave us a partial image of his Brabant. In fact, the southern hills are visible in the background.
The Peasant Dance
In this lively outdoor dance Bruegel achieves perfection in a theme that he had already dealt with on other occasions. The figures, less numerous than in earlier paintings are arranged in perspective, one behind the other in the space bounded by the houses and the church. The painting depicts the culmination of a village feast. On the left, some already tipsy drinkers are seated at a table, behind them two peasants kiss. The piper is playing his instrument and a few couples dance to his tunes. An old dandy arrives in a hurry with a young farm girl. In the foreground two little girls ape the grown-ups dancing. This painting had been in the Vienna inventories since the early seventeenth century, then in 1809 it was taken to France as part of the Napoleonic booty along with the Peasant Wedding. The two paintings were returned to their home in 1815.