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Pieter Breughel the Elder (c. 1529- 1569)

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Pieter Breughel the Elder was by all standards an absolute giant in the history of art. In some ways his reputation is not unlike that of Titian, Velasquez, Ingres, and Bonnard... a painter's painter who only grows in estimation over time. I first came to him through the work of Hieronymus Bosch and imagined him originally to be something of a poor man's version of Bosch... complete with preening peasants dancing. With time I realized he was much, much more (not to underestimate Bosch... an absolute original genius!).

Breughel... like a great many artists after him, spent some time in Italy honing his abilities before returning to Flanders and a career as a professional artist. He may have studied briefly with Hieronymus Bosch... but if not, he was certainly aware of Bosch's work. Upon returning to Flanders he made the acquaintance of the artist/publisher Jerome Kock. Jerome was an astute businessman and recognizing Breughel's talent he contracted him to produce a series of Bosch-like drawings that he would then engrave and sell on the market. Breughel's early fantastic engravings are laden with allegorical imagery that, like Bosch, often verges on Surrealism to the modern eye:

There is something a little forced or artificial, however, to these works by Breughel. They lack the sense of conviction that one finds in Bosch's fantastic imagery. Breughel, however, continued in the style and in a short period of time he was producing prints that rivaled Bosch both in terms of fantasy and social commentary:

A comparison of the finished print, Big Fish Eat Small Fish engraved by Jerome Kock with the original drawing...

... reveals much of what was lost in the translation from the artist's own hand to that of the print. There is an almost Asian calligraphic sensitivity to the manner in which Breughel handled the pen and ink that is largely lost in the final image. In a landscape engraved by the artist himself we can see that this touch has been preserved to such a degree that the work shimmers with an Impressionistic atmosphere.

Breughel, unfortunately, was still laboring under the medieval guild system which involved a great separation of labor. The painter or inventor of an image did not engrave or print the same. Later artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt would reject this working method and as a result raise printmaking to the level of sensitivity that rivaled painting.

While the designs for prints brought Breughel a good income, he was first and foremost a painter. A good many of his paintings rival Bosch in terms of fantastic and hallucinatory social commentary. His marvelous painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) builds upon a fable of a madwoman/giant storming the very gates of hell to loot and plunder. In Breughel's painting it is a clear allegory of greed and avarice. Like many of Breughel's strongest paintings one can become lost studying all the wondrous details for hours:

His magical Fall of the Rebel Angels is perhaps the most Bosch-like of his creations. The angles falling from God's grace metamorphose into outlandish and grotesque hybrids of mammal and fish and fowl:

Like Bosch before him and such later figures as Goya, Daumier, Max Beckmann, and Phillip Guston, Breughel was a master of social commentary and recognized that humor... satire... and even the use of an absurd irrationality was often the most successful means of deflating one's opponent (and at a time when these wealthy opponents wielded absolute power, it was also the safest course). In Breughel's great Tower of Babel the artist lampoons the excess of pride and ego and vanity in a multitude of subtle ways. The Biblical theme of course spoke of man's pride and desire to become as the gods... to this the artist adds the the details of the King and his courtiers checking in on the progress of construction...

The labor grinds to a halt as all the workers bow and fawn before the great rulers (hoping for some recognition and favors to be thrown their way). The disjointed and unfinished sections of the tower... as well as sections already collapsing... suggest that such interruptions may not be all that uncommon. They also suggest that things may not have changed all that much from Breughel's time 'til today as various favored contractors cut corners with substandard materials and pocket the difference.

Breughel drives home the old Biblical adage that "all is vanity" in his harrowing painting, The Triumph of Death. Kings and peasants, the rich and the poor, the just and the criminal, the old and the young... all are subject to death. Death steals the miser's wealth, cuts the throat of the cutthroat, takes the baby from the arms of the mother, and joins in mockingly with the revelers who would "eat, drink, and be merry..."

Perhaps the most fabulous of Breughel's earlier fantastic works is his painting, Netherlandish Proverbs. An initial perusal of this painting leads one to imagine that it is nothing but a portrayal of a busy Flemish town of the era.

Closer inspection, however, reveals much that is rather strange going on. In actuality, nearly every single person or detail in this painting is a visual representation of a common Flemish parable or folk-saying. Many are quite understandable even today:

"To run one's head up against a brick wall"

"One needs to crawl to make it through the world" and "He holds the world on the tip of his thumb":

"She holds fire in one hand and water in the other" (She runs hot and cold)

"He has an eel by the tail" (Today it would be a tiger)

I remember spending hours with this painting... not unlike some of those book illustrations teeming with a similar wealth of detail that I so loved as a child. Indeed... there is much in Breughel that does suggest the child's illustrations... the fairy-tale... the fable... the folk-saying... and yet like the greatest of these there can be so much of real profundity and depth contained within.


Updated 10-19-2008 at 11:14 PM by stlukesguild



  1. Virgil's Avatar
    Excellent lecture on this StLukes. Aren't we lucky.
  2. Captain Pike's Avatar
    How were you able to discover information this exacting from a time when information seems sketchy at best?

    Sorry about the edit as I was attempting to respond.
    Updated 10-19-2008 at 10:41 PM by stlukesguild
  3. stlukesguild's Avatar
    I was a great admirer of Breughel and Bosch from the time I first entered art school. I own some 4 volumes on his work and have read a number of other books and articles. As a student I worked as a teaching assistant and a research assistant in art history while doing honors work in the field. For a while I toyed with the notion of majoring in art history... but I was informed by an art historian through another artist that the art historian and the artist are sworn enemies. One must choose one path or the other.

    As for documentation... actually it is not as sketchy as may be imagined... at least not for some artists. Records often include registration in the Guild of St. Lukes (the artist's guild), records of contracts and sales, critical commentary by contemporaries. Of course... documentation is far more extensive of some artists than on others.
    Updated 10-19-2008 at 10:55 PM by stlukesguild