Important Art by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
One of Bruegel's best-known paintings, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus incorporates a landscape in the foreground with an expansive seascape stretching away towards the horizon. Closest to us, a farmer pushes a plow and horse. To his right, on a lower plateau of land, a shepherd tends to his flock. In the right foreground, a fisherman with his back to the viewer casts his net at the water's edge, while close to the shore in the bottom-right, two legs kick in the air: a comically minute reference to the titular narrative, which therefore seems to unfold in the background of the scene.
This is one of two paintings by Bruegel, which depict the story of Icarus as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. These were the only two works which Bruegel created on mythological themes, in marked contrast to his contemporaries' focus on heroic narratives. The story revolves around the death of Icarus, the boy who wanted so badly to fly that he constructed wings out of wax and feathers. Failing to heed his father's warning not to fly too close to the sun, his wings melted and he plunged into the sea. We might expect that this tragic denouement would form the focal point of Bruegel's painting, but instead it becomes one incident woven into an all-encompassing representation of common rural life, the demise of the hero rendered almost laughable in its head-first ignominy. The composition is both irreverent and subtly philosophically resonant, expressing a clear skepticism for the bombastic mythological painting that had dominated the previous century of Renaissance art.
This work has been the subject of much moral speculation, revolving especially around the various figures who remain ignorant of Icarus's plight, only the shepherd glancing up towards the sky, and not even towards the relevant spot. The displacement of Icarus from center-stage has been interpreted as a directive to remain focused on one's own daily life. William Dello Russo has even suggested that the painting may illustrate a well-known Netherlandish expression, "one does not stay the plow for one who is dying." Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was given its most famous twentieth-century treatment by the poet W.H. Auden, whose poem Musée des Beaux Arts (1938) considers how suffering and personal drama take place in a wider context of ongoing life.
Oil on canvas - Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium
The Fight between Carnival and Lent
In one of his more lurid and chaotic paintings, Bruegel offers us a dense allegorical representation of the competing drives underpinning human character by showing the customs associated with two festivals closely aligned in the early-modern calendar. To the left, the figure of the Carnival holds sway: a fat man astride a beer barrel with a pork chop pinned to its front, spit-roasting a pig and wearing a meat pie as a helmet. He presides over a scene populated by jesters, revelers, musicians, thieves, and beggars. To the right, the gaunt figure of Lent, in the habit of a nun, extends a platter of fish, in defiance of his richer offerings. Behind her, hooded figures emerge from the archway of a church, in which the artworks are shrouded in the custom of the season of abstinence. To the other side of the canvas, the tavern provides an equivalent backdrop, standing for the sins and pleasures of the flesh.
Bruegel's complex symbolic representation of contrasting states of sin and piety, pleasure and pain, judgement and redemption, finds its most obvious precedent in the work of an older Netherlandish master, Hieronymus Bosch. In his proto-Surrealist triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1495-1505) Bosch offers a sequence of landscapes populated by figures in relative states of grace and perdition. What is notable, however, is the lack of any implied supernatural subtext to Bruegel's scene: where Bosch shows us the dire consequences of human error, Bruegel presents the spirit of the Carnival as a force of rebellion and subversion without seemingly offering any positive judgement either way.
The battle between Carnival and Lent stood partly for a contemporary struggle unfolding in Bruegel's home country. In 1556 the Low Countries, in possession of the vastly powerful Habpburg dynasty, passed to King Philip II of Spain, who sought to bring it under a more direct and stricter form of Catholic rule. At the same time, the Netherlandish countries were close to the heart of the unfolding Reformation movement, which viewed Catholic festivities such as Lent with profound suspicion. The carnivalesque energy of the left-hand side of the painting stands not so much for the emergent spirit of Protestantism - which tended to be more repressive of the traditional festive calendar than Catholicism - but for the obdurate pagan customs and rebellious character of an oppressed culture.
Oil on panel - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Netherlandish Proverbs
This painting shows Bruegel's mastery of complex composition, often based on strong diagonal lines bringing overall cohesion to a large number of intersecting focal points. In The Netherlandish Proverbs, a village setting is chosen as the location for a variety of eccentric and superstitious rituals.
The actions undertaken by the villagers represent approximately 120 different Netherlandish proverbs, all related to the oddities of human behavior. In the left foreground a man bangs his head against a brick wall, representing the tendency of a fool to continue attempting the impossible; to the right, a figure leans distraught over a pot of spilt porridge, reminding the viewer that completed actions cannot be undone. Bruegel is noted for his busy compositions, involving many groups of figures engaged in small interactions. These individual compositions in turn establish an overall theme, often satirical or didactic, a compositional approach which has had a profound impact on art history. The influence of Bruegel's allegorical tableaux can be sensed, for example, in the work of the Dutch Symbolist and Expressionist James Ensor, who uses a similar compositional style in Christ's Entry into Brussels (1888) and The Baths at Ostend (1890).
Bruegel's significance as a forerunner of modern art lies not only in his breaking away from the ordered vanishing-point perspectives and carefully-managed figurative arrangements of the Italian Renaissance, but also from the idealized moral style and grandiose subject-matter which those features implied. By depicting the foibles of everyday human life, Bruegel expanded the range of subjects available to the Renaissance painter with characteristic, irreverent wit.
Oil on wood - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany
The Tower of Babel
A vast, partially constructed tower dominates Bruegel's extraordinary 1563 work The Tower of Babel. Surrounding the structure is a landscape dotted with tiny figures, some of whom march in procession around its curving stories, while others toil at the scaffolds along its sides. To the right, ships unload building materials; in every respect of detail, the painting is minutely, naturalistically accurate.
This is one of three paintings Bruegel created around the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel. In so doing, he chose a story intended to provide a moral directive around the dangers of over-reaching ambition. In the original narrative from the Book of Genesis, God prevents King Nimrod from building a tower designed to reach to the heights of heaven, cursing the builders so that they are unable to communicate in the same language. In this painting, Nimrod is presented in the foreground discussing his project with an entourage of sycophantic courtiers, while enfeebled subjects crawl around his feet. The structure behind him is, in part, intended to be reminiscent of a Roman amphitheater, the Roman Empire being a symbol of the hubris of human ambition in Bruegel's day.
As with so much of Bruegel's work, the moral message also has a contemporary resonance. Living at a time when mainland Europe was being ravaged by rival religious factions - on the one hand, the Catholic empires of the south, on the other the dissenting Protestant cultures of the north - the story of a once morally united, monoglot religious society fracturing into rival groupings was a pertinent one; particularly as one of the founding causes of Protestantism was the translation of the Bible into modern script. Bruegel was sympathetic with the Protestant culture of his home country, and another version of the painting, The Little Tower of Babel" (c. 1568) provides a direct critique of Catholic ceremonial pomp. On one of the ramps extending up the tower, a group of figures marches under a line of red canopies, generally understood to be a veiled reference to the customs of the Catholic church, on whose behalf the Duke of Alba was brutally subduing Bruegel's homeland during the 1550s-60s.
Oil on panel - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Hunters in the Snow
In a snow-covered landscape, three hunters lead their dogs through a picturesque, sprawling village. Vivid silhouettes of winter trees dominate the left-hand side of the composition, and, along with the direction of the hunters' movement, lead the eye towards the busy scene at the center, a happy gathering of people on a frozen river. In the background, buildings and snow-covered mountains recede into the distance beneath a blue-gray winter sky.
One of a series of paintings that Bruegel created to depict different seasons of the year, this work demonstrates his unique aptitude for capturing the spirit of the natural world. William Dello Russo describes The Hunters in the Snow as "one of the best-loved works by Bruegel", and "undoubtedly the best-known image of winter in Western art [...] Never before had a painter managed to create such a convincing representation of the coldness, the silence, and the torpor of the winter landscape." Bruegel's approach moves well beyond the characteristic landscape-painting techniques of his era, offering complex compositions that rely on color harmonies to convey the mood of the scene and season. Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen suggest that "the picture is dominated by two 'cold' colors, the white of the snow and the pale green of the sky and ice. Every living thing is dark. This stands in contradiction to the customary color associations connected with being alive, and heightens the impressions of misery and privation." However, the number of people in the painting, and their state of busy activity, suggests liveliness and collectivity in the midst of the frozen landscape, indicating a community not dominated by their surroundings but making their lives within it.
Early in his career, Bruegel drew influence from the Flemish landscape artist Joachim Patinir, who also created paintings which seem to recede telescopically away from the eye. Expanding on Patinir's style, Bruegel's focus on landscape as a self-sufficient subject-matter had a profound impact on the development of modern art, including landscape painting of the Romantic and Naturalist movements. The exaggerated perspectival style of works like Hunters in the Snow, meanwhile, prefigures all subsequent landscape painting in which the conventional, post-Renaissance three-dimensional perspective is eschewed.
Oil on wood - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
The Wedding Dance
Bruegel's life-affirming scene of peasant matrimony is crowded with happy, inebriated revelers. In the background, a table is set with food, while the wedding guests dance, drink, and kiss, forming an unruly circle which fills the central space of the composition. One figure to the right, standing in front of a tree in a black hat and orange shawl, seems detached from the scene even while integrated into the joyful spiral, his demeanor of quiet reflection leading some critics to posit that this is a self-portrait of the artist himself.
This painting is one of many created by Bruegel showing rural peasants in scenes of leisure and celebration. The prevailing thought amongst artists of the Renaissance was that only religion, mythology, and the lives of great men were fit subjects for painting. According to Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen, "no painter before [Bruegel] had dared to produce such works. Contemporary art generally regarded peasants as figures of mockery, considering them stupid, gluttonous, drunken, and prone to violence."
Besides making these gluttonous and volatile figures worthy of artistic representation, Bruegel's decision to focus on scenes and aspects of peasant life also drew attention to the lot of the working man and woman for perhaps the first time in art history. The same motive would become more conspicuous in the work of modern artists inspired by his example, including painters of the French Realist school such as Gustave Courbet and Honoré Daumier, who used their paintings to make politically subversive statements on the living and working conditions of the poor.
Oil on wood - Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
The Conversion of Paul
A mountainous forest landscape dominates Bruegel's painting The Conversion of Paul. Moving in a diagonal sweep from the center foreground to the right background, a crowd of people, including a number of soldiers in armor, swarm into a gap in the rockface. In the left background, behind the crest of the mountain, a calm body of water stretches away.
While this work is nominally focused on the Biblical story of St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, Bruegel radically departed from conventional painterly approaches to religious narrative by making the landscape, and the mass of humanity populating it, the central subject of the work. One has to look closely amongst the figures traveling the mountain path to pick out the convert thrown from his horse, lying on the ground as God strikes him blind. Indeed, without the interpretive hint provided by the title, one might fail to recognize what is taking place. As with his 'Icarus' landscapes, Bruegel detracts further from the import of the central narrative by setting the scene in a contemporary context, using the landscape of his home country as a backdrop, suggesting an irreverent, appropriative attitude to his source-material.
This painting also makes a subtle political statement. Amongst all the figures represented, the viewer's eye is drawn to a man dressed in black riding a white horse with his back to the viewer. Many believe this figure to be based on the Duke of Alba, responsible for the persecution of many Protestants in Brussels during Bruegel's lifetime, as part of a Spanish crusade to bring the Low Countries under stricter Catholic yoke. Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen even suggest that the painting may be intended to invoke a similar conversion of Alba as overcame Paul, bringing an end to his murderous campaign. Whether or not this precise message can be inferred, the work certainly indicates the extent to which Bruegel was willing to use his art to reflect on the religious and political power-structures of his day.
Oil on wood - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
The Blind Leading the Blind
Five blind men trudge across the center of this canvas, canes in hand, arms stretched out hopelessly for guidance. The first member of the procession has already tumbled over, and lies on his back in the dirt. The man directly behind him is mid-stumble, while the steep downward curve of the path behind him suggests that the four following him will suffer the same fate. In the background, various features of a typical Bruegel landscape are visible: a church steeple, low thatched roofs, and a curving, tree-lined hillside.
Though its focus on the poor and destitute is typical of Bruegel's egalitarian concerns, this painting is marked out by its distinct compositional structure and mood. William Dello Russo has pointed out that the earthy color-palette represents a departure from Bruegel's typical tonal range - generally involving brighter colors - as does his use of tempera paint, which allows a less brash, saturated appearance than oil. As regards the visual composition, The Blind Leading the Blind is arguably a very early example of Realist genre painting, focusing closely on a small number of human figures engaged in everyday activities rather than one of the sprawling, densely populated landscapes which occupy the artist's others works.
This painting reflects Bruegel's ability to create captivating allegorical works based on both religious doctrine and common maxims. The painting illustrates a passage found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke -"[a]nd if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch" - but the phrase would have had the currency of a common saying, as it still does, and the curious mixture of empathy and grim amusement that the blind men's plight elicits needs no scriptural grounding. It emanates from that same elementary sense of the pathos and absurdity of human experience that the artist himself drew from. As art historian Max Dvorák wrote in 1928, "[the painting's] novelty lies in the very fact that such an insignificant occurrence with such insignificant heroes becomes the focus of this view of the world."
Tempera on canvas - Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy
The Magpie on the Gallows
A lush woodland landscape dominates this work from the penultimate year of Bruegel's life. In the background are the gables and tiled roofs of a Netherlandish village, while in the foreground to the left, a group of young peasants plays in the fields, unmoved by the structure to their right, on which a lone magpie perches.
Bruegel was not an overtly political artist. But this work, like The Conversion of Paul, indicates his ability to offer oblique commentaries on contemporary society. The gallows would have been a recognizable symbol of oppression during the Spanish campaign in the Low Countries, with hanging a fate awaiting many religious agitators, who were often exposed by the gossip or betrayal of friends. The little bird at the center of the piece thus takes on a grim allegorical relevance via a common Netherlandish expression: "to gossip like a magpie". At the same time, the piece strikes a note of defiance, the male figure defecating in the bushes in the immediate foreground suggesting the artist's attitude towards the Spanish occupation, and calling to mind another common expression of the Low Countries, "to shit at the gallows", meaning to defy authority and death.
There is some speculation that Bruegel himself might have been a victim of malicious gossip towards the end of his life, although no specific narrative supports this theory. It is known, however, that he left this work to his wife, and Karel van Mander has argued that the gesture was a loaded one: "he was referring by the magpie to the gossips, whom he would like to see hanged."
Oil on wood - Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany
Influences and Connections
- Pieter Coecke van Aelst
- Pieter Aertsen
- Giulio Clovio
- Hieronymus Cock
- Joachim Patinir
- Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle
- Niclaes Jonghelinck
- Abraham Ortelius