All hail the master: Flanders pays tribute to Bruegel


Marking 450 years since his death, a year-long programme of events is celebrating the life and times of Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A giant of art

For one of art history’s greats, Pieter Bruegel the Elder has spawned a surprising lack of exhibitions. A pioneer of genre painting and landscapes, the Flemish Renaissance artist’s works – the hunters in the snow or rollicking peasant scenes – are world-famous.

Now the visionary is finally set to get his dues in Flanders, with the launch of a year-long programme of events and exhibitions.

Bruegel Year is part of Flemish Masters, which honoured Peter Paul Rubens in 2018 and will spotlight Jan van Eyck in 2020. The Flemish government has invested €26 million in the three-year programme, designed to spur cultural tourism to the region.

“This September it’s 450 years since Bruegel died, which is one of the few facts we know about him,” says Manfred Sellink, director of Antwerp’s KMSKA, and a Bruegel expert who consulted on the project “He’s regarded as a giant in the art of the Low Countries in the 15th and 16th centuries. And Netherlandish art in this epoch was, with Italy, one of the all-time highlights of culture, so it was logical to have a Bruegel year.”


Bruegel’s contemporaries thought him superior even to Hieronymus Bosch, whose bizarre hellscapes influenced his approach – though Bruegel dropped the religious overtones, creating his own eschatology spanning literal renditions of Flemish proverbs that captured human foibles, and homages to the simple ways of country folk.

His nickname, Peasant Bruegel, stemmed from his adopting commoners’ dress in order to walk among them. “What he really defined was landscapes, a genre he pioneered,” says Sellink, praising Bruegel’s elevated point of view, naturalistic rendering of landscape, and capacity to direct the eye to details. “There’s also this timelessness to his works. The content is so intricate and multi-layered that every generation searches for what Bruegel has to say today.”

Likely born around Breda, the Netherlands, between 1525 and 1530, Bruegel entered the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1551. A trip to Italy inspired his lifelong love of landscapes, and on his return to Antwerp he designed prints for a leading distributor of the day.

In 1563 he married in Brussels, and spent the rest of his life there, turning to painting and creating his most iconic works. The city’s architecture worked its way into paintings such as “Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap” – one reason why Bruegel Year gravitates around the capital.


There’s one major stumbling block for curators: few Bruegel works exist – just 45 paintings and 65 drawings scattered in museums worldwide. “He died at around 40, and his production was painstakingly slow,” says Sellink. “He must have made thousands of drawings but they were lost.”

In a major coup, this winter, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum – home to a Bruegel room housing a dozen works – reunited 75% of his corpus for a once-in-a-generation show marking the 450th anniversary. Staging something similar in Flanders would have been impossible, so Bruegel Year takes a more creative tack, bringing to life his world and visual culture.

Among the highlights, the Dynastiepaleis’ Beyond Bruegel uses immersive technology to plunge viewers into his paintings.

We are complementary to the museums. After you come here you have to go and see the real thing

- Fréderique Malbrancke

The first room zooms in on details and themes from Bruegel’s work, and the second outlines Bruegel works in Belgium (the capital’s Royal Museums of Fine Arts has four, and Antwerp’s Museum Mayer van den Bergh holds the newly restored “Dulle Griet” or “Mad Meg”).

After descending past animated scenes from the “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”, a 360° projection room narrates his story as everything from Mad Meg’s army to the Tower of Babel looms up.

“It’s all done with projectors, which gives us the advantage that we can enlarge the details,” says Fréderique Malbrancke, multimedia director at Create, the Ghent-based firm behind the show. “Bruegel sometimes had figures 2cm high and we can enlarge that to 4m. That’s an opportunity visitors can’t get in a museum. We can bring everything alive.”

“We are complementary to the museums,” he says. “We’re not trying to be them. After you come here you have to go and see the real thing.”


At the Bokrijk open-air museum in Genk, family-friendly show The World of Bruegel leads visitors through 11 sites linked to the artist. Bringing to life daily scenes from centuries past, Bokrijk itself was inspired by Bruegel’s synoptic eye – merging landscapes and impressions into a single composition (the first curator hoped to call the site “Bruegelheem”). 

Kids can search the site for objects from the painting “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559) using augmented reality technology while, from 11 July to 1 September, theatre company Laika will give Bruegel shows twice a day. Artist Frits Jeuris has also created a composite view of Bokrijk that replaces the missing panel of Bruegel’s series “The Months” (1565).

Top art draws are Gasbeek castle’s show about how Bruegel influenced early 20th-century artists, and Bruegel’s lesser-known graphic works at the grand Palace of Charles of Lorraine in Brussels. Sellink hopes visitors will emerge with a sense of Bruegel’s sophistication – hardly the peasant among peasants cemented in memory by Flemish author Felix Timmermans’s biographies.

“We hope to present Bruegel in a much broader context – as being part of this humanist movement in the Southern Netherlands, part of civic culture and the higher echelons of society,” he says. “We want to show how Bruegel was seen in his time but also how he is a source of inspiration that’s still very much relevant today.”


From Fouquet to Bruegel Newly restored masterpiece “Mad Meg” stars in this showcase of two collectors at Antwerp’s Museum Mayer van den Bergh. 5 October-31 December 2020

Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces A dozen Bruegel works are animated via HD technology from the Google Cultural Institute at Brussels’ Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Until 31 December

Bruegel: The Great Escape Hunt for figures escaped from Bruegel paintings at the Church of Our Lady of the Chapel, where he was buried. Until 20 December

Bernard van Orley: The road to Bruegel Bozar honours Flemish master van Orley – a link between the Flemish Primitives and Bruegel. Until 26 May

Bruegel’s Eye: Reconstructing the Landscape A walking route through the Pajottenland area of Flemish Brabant, where Bruegel often painted, strewn with contemporary art and design. Until 31 October

Feast of Fools: Bruegel Rediscovered Gasbeek castle explores Bruegel’s legacy on 20th-century art via interventions from 10 artists including Honoré d’O. Until 28 July

Bruegel in Black and White Rarely displayed Bruegel prints from the Royal Library in Brussels. 15 October-16 February

Back to Bruegel VR-heavy exhibition in the medieval Hallepoort tower exploring the wider context of Bruegel’s time. 18 October-18 October 2020

Photo World of Bruegel (c)Luc Daelemans