Bruegel, the elder was a Netherlandish
Renaissance painter and printmaker
known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. His contemporaries dubbed
him 'Boeren-Bruegel' (Farmers-Bruegel) for his skilful sketches of
country-life, a nickname that does not do justice to either his work or
his talent. Much of Pieter Bruegel's work is clearly inspired by Jeroen
Bosch. Pieter Bruegel specialized in landscapes populated by peasants.
He is often credited as being the first Western painter to paint
landscapes for their own sake, rather than as a backdrop for history
painting. Attention to the life and manners of peasants was rare in the
arts in Brueghel's time. Pieter Bruegel's earthy, unsentimental but
vivid depiction of the rituals of village life, including agriculture,
hunts, meals, festivals, dances, and games, are unique windows on a
vanished folk culture and a prime source of iconographic evidence about
both physical and social aspects of 16th century life.What is unusual
about his religious work is the setting: the landscape and figures in
many of his works are Flemish, not Middle Eastern. Saul's conversion
("The Conversion of St Paul", shown at bottom) takes place in the Alps,
most likely a remnant of Bruegel's most recent trip to Italy.
Known as Pieter Bruegel the Elder to distinguish him from his elder son, he was the first in a family of Flemish painters. He spelled his name Brueghel until 1559, and his sons retained the "h" in the spelling of their names. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is generally considered the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century,and is by far the most important member of the family. Pieter Bruegel was probably born in Breda in the Duchy of Brabant, now in The Netherlands. Accepted as a master in the Antwerp painters' guild in 1551, Pieter Bruegel was apprenticed to Coecke van Aelst, a leading Antwerp artist, sculptor, architect, and designer of tapestry and stained glass.
Pieter Bruegel's use of landscape defies easy interpretation, and demonstrates perhaps the artist's greatest innovation. Working in the aftermath of the Reformation, Bruegel was able to separate his landscapes from long-standing iconographic tradition, and achieve a contemporary and palpable vision of the natural world. For the Antwerp home of the wealthy merchant Niclaes Jongelinck, who owned more than sixteen of the artist's works, Bruegel executed a series of paintings representing the Seasons, of which five survive: Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow, Haymaking, and The Harvesters (shown here). Though rooted in the legacy of calendar scenes, Bruegel's emphasis is not on the labors that mark each season but on the atmosphere and transformation of the landscape itself. These panoramic compositions suggest an insightful and universal vision of the world, a vision that distinguishes all the work of their remarkable creator, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
In 1563 Pieter Bruegel married Mayken, daughter of Pieter Coeck van Aelst, and they settled in Brussels. They had two sons: Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder (distinguished by their retaining the letter 'h' in their surnames), both artists. Indeed Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the head of a dynasty which comprised four generations of artists, although non destined to be so great as himself.
For the rest of his life Pieter Bruegel was active as both a painter and a designer of prints, although after about 1562 painting seemed to have occupied most of his time. During the last years of his life Bruegel was greatly influenced by Italian Renaissance art with its inclination towards the monumental. This can be seen in such works as "The Peasant Wedding" (shown here), "The Peasant Dance", and "The Peasant and the Birdnester", where the figures are larger in scale, more in the foreground, with a lower viewpoint and less emphasis on the setting. However Pieter Bruegel, the elder still continued to produce works in his earlier style with small figures in panoramic settings and his only real relationship with the Italian style in any of his paintings is in the simplicity of form rather than in the idealization of character.
Simplification is the key factor differentiating Pieter Bruegel from other 16th century Flemish artists even though he possessed an equally acute appetite for detail. In Pieter Bruegel paintings eyes are reduced to round holes, heads resemble footballs, bodies look like punched sacks of flour and clothing is nearly always generalized. This lack of emphasis on fine detail enables more stress to be placed on the silhouette of the forms, and herein are found some of his most characteristic and telling effects.
The flat patterns formed by the outline of the figures are strikingly evident in such works as "Hunters in the Snow", where the stunning visual impact of the striding figures, the dogs and the receding tree-trunks has earned the artist justifiable fame. Like Degas, Bruegel was evidently fond of figure-shapes which are formally complete in themselves and it is noticeable how often his figures are shown from the back, lending even greater simplicity to the form. Indeed it is his sense of shape pervading every fragment of the natural scene, both animate and inanimate, which provides Pieter Bruegel the Elder his distinctive hallmark and represents a crowning achievement for Pieter Bruegel as an artist.