Welcome to Bruegelland
Pieter Bruegel the Elder is one of the defining figures of Flemish art, both through his style of painting and his choice of subjects, from folk customs to Flemish landscapes. But Bruegel’s place in the popular consciousness owes a great deal to the way other artists, beginning with his son, adapted and transformed his way of looking at the world. Bruegelland long ago declared independence from its founding father, as you can see at an exhibition running at Lier Municipal Museum.
Lier’s six-year tribute to the master of the Flemish Renaissance
Very little is known about Pieter Bruegel’s early life. Working backwards, historians think that he was born between 1525 and 1530 in an unknown village somewhere in Brabant, which then straddled present day Flanders and the Netherlands. His name first appears in the historical record in 1551, assisting in painting an altarpiece for the glovemakers’ guild in Mechelen.
Around this time, Bruegel also became a member of the Saint Luke painter’s guild in Antwerp and, with the exception of a long journey to Italy in 1552-53, he appears to have lived in the city for much of the following decade.
His work at this time mainly consisted of pen and ink landscapes or religious fantasies in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch. These drawings generally served as models for engravings, although he was also painting similar scenes in oils.
In 1559, he painted his first canvases with multiple characters in a landscape, illustrating themes such as carnival customs or local proverbs, which would become characteristic of his approach.
In 1563, Bruegel married and moved to Brussels. It was here that he would paint some of his most famous landscapes, such as “Hunters in the Snow”, in a series linked to the seasons. Later he brought together Flemish landscapes and biblical subjects in paintings such as “Census at Bethlehem” and “Adoration of the Magi in the Snow”. At the same time he was painting scenes of rural life, such as “The Peasant Dance” and “The Peasant Wedding”, which emphasised its pleasures but also its hardships.
Bruegel died of unknown causes in Brussels in 1569, barely in his 40s. Many of his paintings were already making their way into prestigious private collections, and in the years following his death there was no decline in demand. The artists who followed responded with copies or variations on his key themes, gradually adapting them to appeal to contemporary fashions.
The children of Bruegel
The Bruegelland exhibition in Lier sets out to describe these transitions, drawing mainly on the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, which is currently closed for renovations. Since the museum has no paintings by Bruegel the Elder to lend out, another man acts as the show’s godfather: Felix Timmermans, a writer who lived in Lier all his life and who did much to create the romantic image that we have of Bruegel.
“Timmermans wanted to write a biography of Bruegel, but there is very little historical material, so he had to invent the artist,” explains Nico Van Hout, a conservator and curator at the Antwerp museum who organised the Lier exhibition. This book is Pieter Bruegel, zoo heb ik uit uwe werken geroken (1928), loosely translated into English in 1930 as Droll Peter.
“The image that we have today of Bruegel the Elder is to a large extent due to the work of Timmermans, but this is not a historical view; it’s an invented view,” continues Van Hout. “And that’s a reason to search for the image of Bruegel the Elder through art in Flanders and in Holland.”
The exhibition begins with the work of Bruegel’s eldest son, also called Pieter, who established a studio towards the end of the 16th century to produce copies of his father’s work. Since he was around five when Bruegel died, there was hardly time for the father to have much direct influence on the son. It is even possible that the younger Bruegel never saw many of the paintings that he was copying, working instead from detailed sketches or other copies.
While he faithfully reproduced the subject matter of the originals, there are other differences. “In general, the rather nuanced and very refined colour schemes of Bruegel the Elder are far more gaudy in the son’s versions,” Van Hout says. “Perhaps that was to seduce more middle-class buyers in the 17th century, who wanted more colour in their pictures.”
There are also variations between the copies, as can be seen with two versions of the celebrated “Netherlandish Proverbs” hanging side by side. One comes from Antwerp, the other from Lier’s own collection, and visitors are invited both to spot the differences and decipher figures of speech depicted.
“The Flemish soul”
Bruegel’s imagery was further transformed in the 17th century by painters such as Adriaen Brouwer, Joos Van Craesbeeck and David Teniers the Younger. They emphasised the lower class settings, adopting a patronising tone rather than expressing fellow feelings. Bruegel’s moral message was left behind.
“By the time Teniers, Brouwer and Craesbeeck make their paintings, the connoisseurs and art lovers want to buy them because of the bad behaviour depicted in the scenes,” says Van Hout. “The distance between their own bourgeois lifestyles and the genre images of the paintings becomes greater and enhances their feelings of superiority.”
The exhibition devotes a room to these genre paintings, with their anecdotic scenes from everyday life. Weddings and taverns are common themes for large canvases, while smaller paintings minutely explore the contours of peasant faces. The style is ever more polished, perhaps reaching a peak in Ferdinand De Braekeleer’s slick “A Village Schoolhouse” (1854) and “The Grape Thief” (1850).
While some of these genre artists became society favourites, Bruegel had faded from view. That changed at the end of the 19th century when collectors such as Antwerp’s Fritz Mayer van den Bergh rediscovered him, along with art historians charged with filling public museums. And as the century turned, a new generation of painters connected with Bruegel. “People rediscovered not only his subjects but also his earthy palette of colours,” says Van Hout. “A link is then made between the Flemish soul, if that exists, and that sort of painting.”
One group in particular took Bruegel to heart. “The Flemish expressionists felt inspired by Bruegel,” says Van Hout. “In the exhibition you can see that this is not just true of the brownish-whitish colour schemes; they are also depicting his themes. The winter landscapes of Bruegel are suddenly very much in vogue. They are copied and turned into something of their own. The artistic landscape of Bruegel is re-invented in an expressionistic manner.”
The exhibition currently concludes with paintings by early 20th-century artists Constant Permeke, Gustave Van De Woestyne and Gustave de Smet that illustrate this reconnection with Bruegel. But more is still to come. Bruegelland will stay in Lier until the end of 2017, with a change of focus every six months, including reactions to the Bruegel tradition from contemporary artists.
Lier Municipal Museum
Florent Van Cauwenberghstraat 14
Finding Bruegel in Flanders
Most of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s great works have ended up in major international museums, so your options for seeing the originals closer to home are limited. The main local collection is in Brussels’ Royal Museum of Fine Arts, which has a small but perfect cross-section of his work.
His hellish tendency can be seen in “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” (1562), in which sword-wielding angels expel a hoard of devils and demons from heaven. Meanwhile his atmospheric snowy landscapes are represented by “Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap” (1565) and “The Census at Bethlehem” (1566), which brings the Nativity to a small Flemish village in the depths of winter. Mary and Joseph arriving in the foreground seem lost in the flurry of activity going on around them, from the census itself to the slaughtering of pigs and people skating on the frozen river.
The same room also features Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s 1610 version of “The Census at Bethlehem”, one of at least 13 versions he is known to have painted. While the differences in colour and execution stand out, it is perhaps more astonishing that the paintings are so similar, given that the son may never have seen his father’s original.
Other work by Bruegel the Elder in the room includes “The Adoration of the Magi” from around 1564, which presents the Bible story in a more oriental setting. Then there is “The Fall of Icarus”, still attributed to Bruegel here but, as the museum catalogue notes, probably a copy of a lost original.
This is Bruegel’s only known work depicting a subject from Greek mythology, with the hapless Icarus falling into the sea beside a far-from-mythological galleon. In the foreground, a ploughman and a shepherd go about their work without noticing. The painting has claimed an important place in the Bruegel canon for hundreds of years, with well-known poems devoted to it by WH Auden and William Carlos Williams. You can understand the museum’s reluctance to let it slip away.
To see Bruegel outside of Brussels, head for the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp which has the famous “Dulle Griet” (“Mad Meg”). This painting from around 1562 shows an armour-clad peasant woman, with a sword in one hand and a bread basket in the other, rampaging across a hellish landscape. The style clearly owes something to the religious paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, but the meaning of the tale Bruegel is telling is obscure. Previously owned by Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, the collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh bought it in 1897 for next to nothing at an auction in Cologne.
Finally, until 15 January, you can see Bruegel’s “The Suicide of Saul” (1562), on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, during the Imperial Treasures exhibition in Bruges’ Groeninge Museum. This is one of Bruegel’s smallest, busiest paintings, showing the Philistine army swarming across a mountainous landscape, while the King of Israel breathes his last on a rocky outcrop to one side. (IM)