Pieter Bruegel the Elder

gigatos | January 13, 2022


Pieter Brueghel de Oude called the Elder,


The biography of Pieter Brueghel the Elder has gaps due to the absence of written sources. Historians are often reduced to formulating hypotheses. Among other things, the place and date of his birth are often open to conjecture. Karel van Mander says that he was born “near Breda in the village whose name he took to pass on to his descendants”. However, there were two villages with the name Brueghel or Brogel, one in North Brabant about 55 km from the present Dutch village of Breda, and the other – which was double and was called Grote (Big) Brogel and Kleine (Little) Brigel – was located in present-day Belgian Limburg, about 71 km from Breda, and belonging at that time to the principality of Liège. Various biographers and historians have subsequently established that Kleine-Brogel and Grote-Brogel were about 5 km from Brée which, in the 16th century, was called Breede, Brida or in Latin Breda. Van Mander would not have thought that Breda in Brabant could be confused with Breede-Brida-Breda in Limburg. Thus, the problem is not solved.

To calculate the date of his birth, two facts are taken into account. The first is that it is known when he died, in 1569, and that it was “in the prime of life” (medio aetatis flore), which means between 35 and 45 years of age. The second is that he was admitted as a master in the liggeren (“registers”) of the guild of St. Luke in Antwerp in 1551, which is usually between the ages of 21 and 25. This makes it possible to place Brueghel”s date of birth between 1525 and 1530, making him a contemporary of Philip II of Spain.

The exact spelling of his surname is also uncertain, the most frequent forms being Brueghel, Bruegel and Breugel. Nor is it certain that he adopted this surname because it was the name of his birthplace, because by the 16th century surnames already existed as family names.


According to van Mander, he was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a cultivated artist, dean of the artists” guild, painter and architect at the same time, and whose daughter Mayken he eventually married. Practically unknown in his formative years, the only information about his life and career is provided by a biography of 1609, which presents him as an ignoramus dedicated to comic painting. However, it seems sufficiently demonstrated that he was a man of some culture, since he was acquainted with scholars and scientists of his country. In 1551 he was accepted as a master in the Antwerp painters” guild.

Between 1551 and 1553 he traveled through France and Italy. In Rome he was able to work with the miniaturist Giulio Clovio. He spent some time in the workshop of a Sicilian master. Some of the paintings that illustrate this trip are Combat in the port of Naples, the scene of The Fall of Icarus and The Suicide of Saul, as well as some drawings. While making the trip, he had to cross the Alps, making an important collection of drawings on its landscape. It seems that the trip, rather than for training, was to make drawings of Italian and Alpine landscapes so that the engraver Hieronymus Cock could reproduce them in engraving.

Between 1555 and 1563 he settled in Antwerp, where he worked for the publisher Hieronymus Cock, making preliminary drawings for various engravings, including a series on The Seven Deadly Sins where Bruegel introduced fantastic and grotesque elements inspired by Hieronymus Bosch. In Antwerp he frequented a circle of artists and humanist scholars such as the patron Nicolas Jonghelinck who had sixteen of his works. It is known that he was a friend of the cartographer Abraham Ortelio, who wrote some touching lines in his memory.

In 1562, at the request of his future mother-in-law, he moved to Brussels, to the Marolles district, at number 132 of the main street (rue Haute) in a house with stepped roofs in the Flemish medieval style typical of the 16th century. In the church of Our Lady of the Chapel (Notre-Dame de la Chapelle or Kapellekerk) he married Mayken Coecke, daughter of his master Pieter Coecke van Aelst, in 1563.

In 1564 the first-born of his sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, called Brueghel d”Enfer (“of Hell”), was born. The political and religious situation in Flanders was deteriorating. In 1567 the Duke of Alba began a bloody campaign of repression against the rebels. His second son, Jan Brueghel the Elder, called Brueghel de Velours (“of Velvet”) was born in 1568, the same year as the execution of the Counts of Egmont and Horn. It seems certain that Brueghel the Elder was protected by the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, Granvela, a collector of his works. His two sons, Pieter and Jan, became painters, but neither of them was a disciple of their father, who died when both were still children. According to Karel van Mander, they were probably taught by their grandmother Mayken Verhulst van Aelst, who was also an artist. Jan Brueghel followed in his father”s footsteps and became a painter, specializing in landscapes, while Pieter Brueghel the Younger devoted himself to writing. They both excelled greatly in what they did because they had the talent of their fathers.

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

Very little is known about Brueghel”s personality, apart from these few lines by Carel van Mander: “He was a quiet, wise and discreet man, but in company, he was amusing and liked to frighten people or his apprentices with ghost stories and hundreds of other deviltries.”

Brueghel”s social life extended far beyond the intellectual circle, voluntarily attending peasant weddings to which he had himself invited as a “relative or countryman” of the bride and groom. He received the nickname “Peasant Brueghel” or “Brueghel the Peasant” for his alleged practice of dressing like a peasant to mingle at weddings and other celebrations, thus gaining inspiration and authentic details for his genre paintings. It has also been suggested that the origin of this nickname comes from his depictions of peasant life.

Van Mander tells some anecdotes, a bit fanciful, such as his interference in the marriage with his friend Hans Frankaert, jeweler of Antwerp: “In the company of Franckert, Brueghel liked to visit the peasants, at weddings or fairs. The two men dressed like the peasants, and even like the other guests brought gifts, and behaved as if they belonged to the family or belonged to the circle of one or the other of the spouses. He loved to observe the customs of the peasants, their table manners, dances, games, forms of courtship, and all the buffoonery they could offer, and which the painter knew how to reproduce, with great sensitivity and humor, with color, both in watercolor and oil, being well versed in both techniques. He knew well the character of the peasants of Kempen and its surroundings. He knew how they dressed in life and how to paint their coarse gestures as they danced, walked or stood while engaged in different tasks. He drew with extraordinary conviction and mastered pen drawing particularly well.”

Brueghel died in Brussels in September 1569 and was buried in the church of Notre Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels.

His portrait is found in Pictorum Aliquot Celebrium Germaniae Inferioris Effigies, by Dominicus Lampsonius. This portrait of the painter, attributed to the engraver Johan Wierix, was published with a poem by Lampsonius in 1572.

Brueghel is best known for his landscapes, a genre in which he achieved notable importance. He is often considered the first Western artist to paint landscapes for their own sake, rather than as a backdrop for religious allegories. Brueghel found his greatest inspiration in nature and is identified as a master of landscapes. They are characterized by a wide panoramic view from above. This can be seen in works such as Naval Combat in the Port of Naples, Road to Calvary or the series of the Seasons. He created a story, apparently by combining several scenes in a single painting. His winter landscapes of 1565 (e.g., Hunters in the Snow) corroborate the harshness of winters during the Little Ice Age. When he crossed the Alps on his journey to Italy, he drew numerous landscapes. They were very important for his career, because on his return he developed them into engravings that spread throughout Europe.

A part of his work, which links more directly with the work of his predecessor Bosch, depicts apocalyptic themes. In this line he painted Fall of the Rebel Angels, Dulle Griet and The Triumph of Death, and also under Boschian inspiration he designed engravings for the publisher Hieronymus Cock, among them seven on The Deadly Sins.

Brueghel excelled, above all, in family and popular scenes, genre scenes, populated by peasants, often with a large landscape element. Examples of this theme are: Children”s Games, The Wedding Banquet, The Parable of the Blind (1568), The Country of Jauja and Peasant Dance. In these scenes there was a moralizing intention, representing the defects of the human being, something that Bosch had also done in, for example, The Stone of Folly. Thus, The Parable of the Blind would represent the foolishness of the world, while The Country of Jauja (1567) would represent the ephemeral nature of material goods.

One of his most famous themes is The Tower of Babel, of which he painted three pictures, although two have survived: The Building of the Tower of Babel (1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and The Little Tower of Babel (Rotterdam). It would symbolize the fatal destiny of the growing thirst for power of the human being. The painter”s interest in the Tower of Babel may have stemmed from the cosmopolitan character of his city of Antwerp.

Brueghel”s painting is generally presented in three periods:

Brueghel was formed within the Flemish school. The painter breaks with his predecessors or the Italian taste of the 16th century. By connecting the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he surpasses the art of the Flemish primitives and surpasses the Italians; the unity of his compositions, his narrative talent and his interest in “minor genres” make him an unclassifiable artist in the history of art. The most obvious influence on his art is the old Dutch master Bosch, particularly in his earlier “demonological” paintings of Brueghel such as The Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet. With Hieronymus Bosch he shares a certain fantastic treatment in certain scenes, a figurative tradition, as seen in The Triumph of Death on display in the Prado Museum. Bosch represents the end of the Middle Ages, he is the last “primitive” and Brueghel began a new century, a modern era that opens with the discovery of man and the world. However, the work of Bosch wants to inspire a devout terror, something that is totally absent in Brueghel. For the first, the world is a “dream of God” or a deception of the Devil; Nature is a harmful temptation. For the other, human action on the contrary is all its value: joys or challenges to fate, man must attempt adventure in spite of threats.

When he traveled to Italy, he learned the Renaissance way of painting. He followed the mannerist trend that affected all of Europe. This can be seen in the characteristic decomposition of the painting into a multitude of scenes (Proverbs, 1559).

However, he has a more modern and realistic conception than the mannerists. This can be seen in the irony with which he treats the subjects. Also in that he does not strive to show an ideal beauty, but to reflect people in a quite realistic way. It is innovative that the subject of his themes is collective, the group, and not an isolated character or a small group. The fact that he made the life and customs of peasants the main focus of a work was rare in the painting of Brueghel”s time. His earthy, unsentimental but vivid depictions of the rituals of village life-including farming, hunting, feasting, feasting, dancing, and games-are unique windows into a vanished peasant culture and a primary source of iconographic evidence of both physical and social aspects of sixteenth-century life. For example, the painting The Flemish Proverbs illustrates dozens of then-contemporary aphorisms (many of them still used in today”s Dutch or Flemish), and Children”s Games shows the variety of entertainments enjoyed by the young.

Using abundant comic energy and spirit, he created some of the earliest images of social protest in artistic history. Examples include paintings such as El combate entre don Carnal y doña Cuaresma (a satire of the Reformation conflict) and engravings such as El asno en la escuela and Cajas fuertes combatiendo Huchas. It is said that on his deathbed he ordered his wife to burn the most subversive drawings to protect his family from political persecution. He is considered a precursor of the Baroque north of the Alps. The colorfulness of his Seasons (1565) anticipates 17th century painting.

At the end of his career he increased the size of the figures, and a new conception of the structure of the painting can be appreciated. He painted in a simpler style than the Italianate style that prevailed in his time. In his last paintings he adopts a larger size. There are fewer figures, of a larger size, which stand out against the background; losing importance the background.

Unlike the Renaissance painters, Brueghel did not depict the nude and had little interest in portraiture. His characters are far removed from the glorification of well-proportioned bodies. In his paintings dominated by popular life, the painter shows the peasants as they are, in their activities and their leisure. For the first time in the history of painting, the peasant class is humanized within an objective vision. Heads are aligned and it can be seen that the artist is sensitive to emotions and weaknesses.

Even Brueghel”s biblical scenes are mostly set in a village and the description of the crowded public square takes up more space than the subject (see The Enumeration of Bethlehem). In the sixteenth century, in fact, the street and the square were the places of meeting and entertainment: the winter games, the carnival, the procession and the kermeses, peasant ritual dances, everything was a pretext for celebration and the painter narrates these meetings that Philip II, for his part, wishes to prohibit.

In the series of the Seasons he shows the deep union of living beings subject to natural cycles, he expresses the stoic conception according to which the world is a well-ordered construction in which man occupies a precise place and accepts his destiny. On the other hand, in the other canvases, Brueghel seems to fear man”s pride and rebellion against the order of creation (it is Nemrod and his mad enterprise, Icarus and his dream or even the Punishment of the rebellious angels). Joy can coexist with danger if man submits to fatality and integrates himself into the symphony of natural elements.

Karel van Mander

All research concerning the life, the activities, the personality, the spirit and the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, tends to complete, to specify if not to correct what the first, Karel Van Mander relates about them in his Book of Painters (Het Schilder-Boeck in the first edition), published in Harlem, dated 1604. It is found under the heading “Pierre Bruegel, de Bruegel”, which he wrote under the title Karel van Mander”s Book of Painters.

Together, Franckert and Brueghel took pleasure in going to parties and village weddings, disguised as peasants, offering gifts like the other guests and claiming to be from the family of one of the spouses.

Abraham Ortelio

The testimony of contemporaries, especially in the Antwerp art and publishing world, shows that Brueghel had numerous friends and admirers. The Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelio paid tribute to him in his Album amicorum.

The painter Eupompos, when asked which of his predecessors he considered his master, replied pointing to the crowd: “We must imitate nature itself, not an artist”. A phrase that fits well with our friend Bruegel whom I would call not the painter of painters, but the nature of painters: what I mean is that he deserves to be imitated by all. As Pliny says about Apelles, our Bruegel painted many things that could not be painted. In all his works, there is always more of thought than of painting. Eunapius says the same about Timantes The painters who represent graceful beings, in the flower of age, and wanted to add to the painting a charming elegance that they drew from themselves, distorting the image represented and moving away from the model taken, also moved away from the true beauty. Our Bruegel is purely of this work.

Ludovico Guicciardini

Ludovico Guicciardini, a Florentine merchant settled in Antwerp, cites it in his Descrittione de” Paesi Bassi (“Description of the Netherlands”) published by Cristobal Plantino in 1567:

Pieter Bruegel of Breda, a great imitator of the science and imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, also earned him the nickname Second Hieronymus Bosch.

Brueghel has gained enough notoriety to be mentioned by Giorgio Vasari who consecrates this mention in his Vite:

We also celebrate as a good painter. Pierre Breughel of Antwerp, excellent master.

Dominicus Lampsonius

Dominicus Lampsonius, Lampsonius, who worked for the same publisher as Brueghel, Hieronymus Cock, and knew the writings of Guiccardini, makes this eulogy and addresses it to Pieter Breughel in the following verses:

You remind us of your master”s vivid conceptions, Who, with a skilful brush, faithfully presents us his style, And, in doing so, even surpasses it? You rise, Pieter, thanks to your fecund art, In the manner of your old master you trace pleasant things. Well done to make one laugh; with him you deserve to be considered the equal of the greatest artists.

Dirck Volkertszoon Coornhert

The testimony of Dirck Volkertszoon Coornhert, himself an engraver, shows the esteem in which the painter was held among his colleagues. Coornhert describes here his pleasure at The Death of the Virgin in a letter to Ortelio dated July 15, 1578.

Dear Ortelio, your precious gift has just arrived and I do not know how to express my gratitude. I really appreciate the delicacy of the drawing and the quality of the engraving. Brueghel and Philippe (Galle) have surpassed themselves. I consider that they have never been better. The kindness of their friend Abraham Ortelius makes it possible to make their talent known, so that the art lovers of the future might delight in it.I think I have never seen a more beautifully drawn or engraved representation than this sad room.What am I saying? I really seem to hear the words of sorrow, the sobs, the tears and expression of unhappiness, the complaints and groans come true here; in this work, no one can fail to participate with fervor in the sadness of the event. This is a mortuary chamber, and yet everything seems alive, so great is the authenticity.

Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo

The painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, considered one of the pioneers of art history, quotes Brueghel with admiration.

Michel de Ghelderode

The Brussels author Michel de Ghelderode experienced throughout his life a great admiration for Brueghel”s paintings, which he often quoted in his works, such as The Blind, inspired by the painting The Parable of the Blind.

In the work La Balada del Gran Macabro, a piece in which the atmosphere and the characters are reminiscent of the Combate entre don Carnal y doña Cuaresma and El triunfo de la Muerte. The country where the story takes place is itself called “Brueghelandia”, a direct reference to the artist.


The painter”s name also appears in several painting anthologies:

P. A. Orlandi, Abecedario pittorico (Pictorial Alphabet, 1719):

He painted absurd and ridiculous things, not so much for the color and drawing, which were noble and worthy of a master, as for the subject matter and invention.

J.-B. Descamps, La Vie des peintres flamands (The Life of the Flemish Painters, 1753):

Brueghel made sketches during festivals and peasant weddings, which he painted admirably in oil and tempera. Born for this kind of subjects, he may be the first in his art, without Téniers. His compositions are very well conceived, the drawing is correct, the costumes of good quality, the heads, the hands are captured with their spiritual value.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Viaje a Flandes y Holanda (1797):

This painter alien to any form of pictorial technique; but in this picture [The Slaughter of the Innocents, which Reynolds knew from a copy], there are many ideas, a lively and varied representation of despair: so much he did for twenty moderns. Under this aspect, the author distinguishes himself from the versifiers of to-day who did not carry in them some thought of a weight, fall easily into the false gallop of verse ridiculed by Shakespeare in As You Like It.

The taste for Brueghel the Elder culminated in about 1600. In 1594, after his triumphal entry into Antwerp, Archduke Ernest of Austria received a series of master paintings representing the months of the year, no doubt a prestigious gift. In 1609, his son Jan Brueghel the Elder wrote to Cardinal Frederick Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan and creator of the Ambrosian Library, he could not procure more paintings by his father, with the exception of what he himself possessed, the Christ and the adulteress. The situation was such that, as he explains, the Emperor offered the highest price to acquire all of Brueghel”s works.

In such a context is favorable to the proliferation of copies, imitations and forgeries. And indeed, it is then that appear numerous drawings made with pen, which a “Master of small landscapes” made clearly in the style of Brueghel. A group of 25 drawings, bearing Brueghel”s signature and dating from 1559-1562, thus emerged. It is now known that they were executed at the end of the 16th century, probably by Jacob Savery or even Cornelis Cort, and perhaps a fraudulent purpose. The same hypothesis must be considered for the famous Mountain Landscapes, or Views of the Alps, long considered to be Brueghel”s masterpieces. In reality, most of these drawings were executed at the end of the 16th century.

There are 45 surviving paintings that have been declared authentic, as well as a number of lost works. One third of these works are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Art History in Vienna. There is also a large number of drawings and engravings. A good number of his works have been lost, and some paintings once attributed to him are now considered to be later copies by his children.

The drawings

At the dawn of the 21st century, few drawings remain by Brueghel the Elder”s hand; they have often been attributed to other artists, mainly through the study of watermarks and paper monograms, which will demonstrate the posterity of the drawings.

Roelant Savery (1576-1639) has been attributed the famous Naer”t leven drawings – in situ – and several Large Landscapes seem to be by the hand of his older brother Jacob Savery (ca. 1565-1603). The authorship of other compositions, landscapes, characters and country scenes is shared by still anonymous artists called the Master of mountain landscapes – who could be Roelant or Jacob Savery -, the Master of small landscapes or even Cornelis Cort – but also Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Balten, the Coecke family, Brueghel”s own sons – Peter and Jan – or his entourage. It also seems that the great success of Brueghel the Elder”s compositions has attracted forgers.

The latest catalog raisonné of the drawings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder describes 61 autograph drawings and six known from a copy. Of these 67 items, thirty-five were completed for the purpose of engraving. Eighty-four engravings were published (not counting those made from a painting or posthumous). It lacks then at least forty-nine drawings.

The engravings

The number of works engraved by Brueghel the Elder reaches one hundred, according to the specialist Louis Lebeer.

From 1556, Brueghel”s name is associated with that of the publisher Hieronymus Cock for the sign Aux quatre vents. He drew satirical plates such as The Big Fish Eats the Little Fish. The following year he published the series of the Seven Deadly Sins followed in 1558 by The Seven Virtues.

The Hunting of the Wild Rabbit – executed in 1560 – is the only engraving that Brueghel the Elder executed by himself, and which was published by Hieronymus Cock. The original drawing is known. Long considered a copy, it has recently been re-attributed to the master. It could illustrate the old proverb “chasing two hares at once”, that is, doing two things at the same time. By the effects of light and atmosphere, it already prefigures two great paintings The Hunters in the Snow and The Return of the Herd, or the diurnal and seasonal character plays an important role.

Brueghel is also the inventor of a large number of engravings executed by other artists and published by Hieronymus Cock: The Lean Kitchen and the Fat Kitchen, engraved by Pieter van der Heyden in 1563. Like those of Bosch, his engravings continued to be printed after his death.


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