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Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Painter and The Connoisseur, c. 1565 is thought to be Bruegel's self-portrait.
Born Pieter Brueghel
c. 1525
Bree, Duchy of Brabant, Habsburg Netherlands
(modern-day Belgium)
Died 9 1569(1569-09-09) (aged 44)
Brussels, Duchy of Brabant, Habsburg Netherlands
(modern-day Belgium)
Known for Painting, printmaking
Notable work(s) The Blind Leading the Blind, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, The Hunters in the Snow, The Peasant Wedding
Movement Dutch and Flemish Renaissance

Pieter Bruegel (also Brueghel) the Elder (Dutch: ; c. 1525 – 9 September 1569) was a Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (so called genre painting). He is sometimes referred to as the "Peasant Bruegel". From 1559, he dropped the "h" from his name and signed his paintings as Bruegel.


  • Life 1
  • Historical background 2
  • Subjects 3
    • The sins and virtues 3.1
    • Peasants 3.2
    • Months of the year 3.3
  • Family 4
  • Work referenced in others' work 5
  • Selected works 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The main source for Bruegel's biography is Karel van Mander's 1604 Schilder-boeck.[1] According to van Mander, he was born in Breugel near the (now Dutch) town of Breda. There are however also records that show that he was born in Breda, and there is some uncertainty whether the (now Belgian) town of Bree, called Breda in Latin, is meant.[2] He was an apprentice of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter Mayken he later married. He spent some time in France and Italy, and then went to Antwerp, where in 1551 he was accepted as a master in the painter's guild. He traveled to Italy soon after, and then returned to Antwerp before settling in Brussels permanently 10 years later.

He received the nickname "Peasant Bruegel" or "Bruegel the Peasant" for his practice of dressing up like a peasant in order to socialize at weddings and other celebrations, thereby gaining inspiration and authentic details for his genre paintings. He died in Brussels on 9 September 1569 and was buried in the Kapellekerk.

Historical background

Bruegel was born at a time of extensive change in Western Europe. Humanist ideals from the previous century influenced artists and scholars in Europe. Italy was at the end of their High Renaissance of arts and culture, when artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci painted their masterpieces. In 1517, about eight years before Bruegel's birth, Martin Luther created his Ninety-Five Theses and began the Protestant Reformation in neighboring Germany. The Catholic Church impinged increasingly more upon the European way of life and art. Perhaps most importantly for artists, the Council of Trent in 1545 determined what art was appropriate in Catholic states.

At this time, the Netherlands was divided into seventeen provinces, some of which wanted separation from the Catholic Church, which controlled the provinces from their bastion in Spain. The Netherlands were influenced by the newly Lutheran Germany to the east and the newly Anglican England to the west, as evidenced by the rise of Protestantism. Since the Habsburg monarchs of Spain were the enforcers of the Catholic Church and the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Western Europe, Protestantism in the Netherlands came heavily under fire.

The Spanish monarch, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, passed the Edict of Blood in 1550. Death was the penalty for heresy to the Catholic Church; however, Charles did not enforce this edict. His son, Philip II of Spain, whose actions became a source of great unrest in the Netherlands during the 1560s, enforced the Edict of Blood. Calvinism became increasingly popular in the Netherlands despite the threat of death. Philip’s murder plot against a Netherlandish prince, William the Silent, the ever-present Spanish soldiers led by the hated Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba and Calvinist riots brought the Netherlands to the brink of rebellion.

This was the atmosphere in which Bruegel reached the height of his career as a painter. Two years before Bruegel's death, the Eighty Years' War began between the Netherlands (led by William the Silent) and Spain. Although Bruegel did not live to see it, seven provinces became Protestant, while the other ten remained under Catholic control at the end of the war.[3]


The Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Vices - Anger, 1558

Bruegel specialized in genre paintings populated by peasants, often with a landscape element, but he also painted religious works. Making the life and manners of peasants the main focus of a work was rare in painting in Bruegel's time, and he was a pioneer of the Netherlandish genre painting. His earthy, unsentimental but vivid depiction of the rituals of village life—including agriculture, hunts, meals, festivals, dances, and games—are unique windows on a vanished folk culture and a prime source of iconographic evidence about both physical and social aspects of 16th century life. For example, the painting Netherlandish Proverbs illustrates dozens of then-contemporary aphorisms (many of them still in use in current Dutch or Flemish), and Children's Games shows the variety of amusements enjoyed by young people. His winter landscapes of 1565 (e.g. The Hunters in the Snow) are taken as corroborative evidence of the severity of winters during the Little Ice Age.

Using abundant spirit and comic power, he created some of the early images of acute social protest in art history. Examples include paintings such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (a satire of the conflicts of the Reformation) and engravings like The Ass in the School and Strongboxes Battling Piggybanks. On his deathbed, he reportedly ordered his wife to burn the most subversive of his drawings to protect his family from political persecution resulting from conflicts between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation.[4]

The sins and virtues

During the late 1550s in Antwerp, Bruegel designed engravings for the leading publisher of the city, Hieronymous Cock, at the House of the Four Winds. He achieved the greatest success with a series of allegories: The Seven Deadly Sins and The Virtues. It is easy to see Hieronymous Bosch's influence in these engravings: the sinners are grotesque and unidentifiable while the allegories of virtue often wear odd headgear.[5]


The Peasant Wedding, 1566–69, oil on panel

By 1558, Bruegel began painting more than drawing or carving. He primarily painted religious scenes in a Flemish setting, such as in his paintings, Conversion of Paul and The Sermon of St. John the Baptist. In the 1560s, Bruegel began painting the ordinary life of peasants. Often Bruegel painted a community event, as in The Peasant Wedding and The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. In paintings like The Peasant Wedding, Bruegel painted individual, identifiable people while the people in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent are unidentifiable, muffin-faced allegories of greed or gluttony.

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568
Although Bruegel often painted scenes of carousing and community gatherings, he often accurately depicted cripples or people with disabilities. Perhaps one of Bruegel’s most famous paintings was The Blind Leading the Blind. Not only was Bruegel's subject matter unusual, but it also depicted a quote from the Bible: "If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch" (Matthew 15:14). Using the Bible to interpret this painting, the six blind men are symbols of the blindness of mankind in pursuing earthly goals instead of focusing on Christ's teachings.
Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559, oil on oak wood

Even if Bruegel's subject matter was unconventional, the religious ideals and proverbs driving his paintings were typical of the Northern Renaissance. The Flemish provided a large artistic audience for proverb-filled paintings because proverbs were well known and recognizable as well as entertaining. One of Bruegel's most famous paintings was Netherlandish Proverbs, painted in 1559. The majority of Bruegel's paintings have many different actions occurring at once, but this painting, with over 110 proverbs, must have been one of his most symbolically laden paintings.[6]

Months of the year

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, oil on wood

Paintings of proverbs were not Bruegel's only subjects. In 1565, a wealthy patron in Antwerp, Niclaes Jonghelinck commissioned him to paint a series of paintings of each month of the year. Today, only five of these paintings survive and some of the months are paired to form a general season. Traditional Flemish books of hours (e.g., the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry;[7] 1416) had calendar pages that included depictions of what the social life, the weather, and the landscape supposedly would have looked like for that month.

Bruegel's paintings were on a larger scale than a typical calendar page painting, each one approximately three feet by five feet. For Bruegel, this was a large commission (the size of a commission was based on how large the painting was) and an important one. In 1565, the Calvinist riots began and it was only two years before the Eighty Years' War broke out. Bruegel may have felt safer with a secular commission so as to not offend Calvinist or Catholic.[8] Some of the most famous paintings from this series included The Hunters in the Snow (December–January) and The Harvesters (August).


Pieter the Elder had two sons: Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder (both changed their name to Breughel). Their grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, trained the sons because "the Elder" died when both were very small children. The older brother, Pieter Brueghel, was not the better painter of the two; he copied his father's style but without any degree of great talent. Jan was more successful; he turned to the Baroque style and even collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens on the Allegory of Sight.[9]

Other members of the family include Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Mayken Verhulst (father-in-law and mother-in-law to Pieter Bruegel the Elder), Jan van Kessel, senior (grandson of Jan Bruegel the Elder) and Jan van Kessel, junior. Through David Teniers, the family is also related to the whole Teniers family of painters and the Quellinus family of painters and sculptors, since Jan-Erasmus Quellinus married Cornelia, daughter of David Teniers the Younger.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Jan Brueghel the Elder
Ambrosius Brueghel
Jan Brueghel the Younger
Anna Brueghel x David Teniers the Younger
Paschasia Brueghel x Hieronymous van Kessel
Jan Pieter Brueghel
Abraham Brueghel
Jan Baptist Brueghel
Jan van Kessel, senior

Work referenced in others' work

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558, oil on canvas mounted on wood

His painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is the subject of the 1938 poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" by W. H. Auden:

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.[10]

It also was the subject of a 1960 poem by William Carlos Williams and was referenced in Nicolas Roeg's 1976 science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Two Monkeys, 1562, oil on panel

Bruegel's painting Two Monkeys was the subject of Wisława Szymborska 1957 poem, "Brueghel's Two Monkeys".[11]

Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky referenced Bruegel's paintings in his films several times, notably Solaris (1972) and The Mirror (1975).

His 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary inspired the 2011 Polish-Swedish film co-production The Mill and the Cross, in which Bruegel is played by Rutger Hauer.

Bruegel's paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum are shown in the 2012 film, Museum Hours, where his work is discussed at length by a guide.

It is believed that his painting The Hunters in the Snow influenced the classic short story with the same title written by Tobias Wolff and featured in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.

Seamus Heaney referenced Breughel in his poem "The Seed Cutters".

Selected works

There are about 45 authenticated surviving paintings, one third of which are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A number of others are known to have been lost. There are a large number of drawings. Bruegel only etched one plate himself, The Rabbit Hunt, but designed many engravings and etchings, mostly for the Cock publishing house.



  1. ^ van Mander's Bruegel biography in Dutch
  2. ^ Grove Art Online
  3. ^ Foote, Timothy (1968). The World of Bruegel. Library of Congress: Time-Life Library of Art. pp. 18–27. 
  4. ^ Mayor, A. Hyatt. Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971, 426.
  5. ^ Foote, Timothy (1968). The World of Bruegel. Library of Congress: Time-Life Library. 
  6. ^ Stokstad, Cothren, Marilyn, Michael (2010). Art History- Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century Art. 
  7. ^ Stokstad, Cothren, Marilyn, Michael (2010). Art History- Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century Art. 
  8. ^ Foote, Timothy (1968). The World of Bruegel. Library of Congress: Time-Life Library. 
  9. ^ "Pieter Bruegel, the Elder". World History in Context. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 
  10. ^ Foote, Timothy (1986). The World of Bruegel. Time-Life Library. p. 149. 
  11. ^ Szymborska, Wislawa (1995). View With a Grain of Sand. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 3. 
  12. ^ Masterpieces of the Brukenthal Collection
  13. ^ (Het journaal 1–11/11/09). "". Retrieved 12 November 2009. 

External links

  • Bosch Bruegel Society
  • 99 works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
  • Gallery of all paintings and drawings
  • Timken Museum of Art's "Parable of the Sower" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
  • Creativity Brueghel laid the foundation of the Netherlands School
  • The political consciousness of Pieter Bruegel
  • Orenstein, Nadine M., ed. (2001). Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints.  

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