The anniversary is upon us: Where can you find original Bruegels?


Monday, 9 September is the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with an array of activities and exhibitions dedicated to the leading painter of the Flemish Renaissance

The real deal

Today is the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. While he was without a doubt the leading master of the Flemish and Dutch Renaissance of painting, little is known about the details of his life in the 16th century.

It is known that he was born in what is now the Netherlands and lived approximately the last half of his life in Antwerp and later Brussels, where he is also buried. So Flanders and Brussels’ art and tourist communities have named 2019 The Year of Bruegel.

Bruegel was a pioneer in landscape painting and had a great influence on the introduction of the genre. He was also one of the first artists to largely abandon religious iconography in favour of works that centred on the common people and their own folklore.

Famous for creating scenes from tales, legends and folklore in the low countries, one of his  specialities was to paint vast scenes with dozens – or hundreds – of figures in them. Often the figures are incredibly small – maybe two inches high – but they are incredibly detailed.

He also created nightmarish scenes along the lines of his predecessor, Hieronymus Bosch. Allegories of good and evil, they are peppered with little monsters and devils doing quite hideous things. You can study a Bruegel painting for a very long time and continue to make little discoveries.

There are dozens of events and activities going on in both regions to celebrate Bruegel’s’ life and work. The cornerstone exhibition, Beyond Bruegel, a 360-degree immersive experience in Brussels, continues until the end of January. It blows up the tiny details in his paintings, so those two-inch figures tower above you, and you can see exactly how they look.

The World of Bruegel at Bokrijk open air museum in Genk introduces visitors to what it was like to live in Bruegel’s day, and the Church of Our Lady in Brussels – where the man is buried – brings some of his more, erm, colourful figures to life via sculptures that pop up in unexpected places.

What about original Bruegels?

The best way to start discovering Bruegel, though, is through his original works. About 40 of his paintings are left, scattered in museums across the world. Most of them can be found in Europe, and Vienna has the most at 12. Brussels comes in second, with four.

Alongside the four original Bruegels at the Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, there is one that was once attributed to Bruegel – “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” – but is now considered a copy. The museum has several more copies of Bruegel’s works, some of them painted by his famous sons, Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder.

There is also a very good Bruegel in Antwerp. “Dulle Griet” is classic Bruegel, and the Museum Mayer Van Den Bergh is also home to 12 medallion-shaped paintings by Bruegel, each with a single figure depicting a well-known proverb.

Images: “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” (top), “Census at Bethlehem” (above, cropped). Both paintings are at the Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels