How Did Bruegel the Elder Depict the Seasons?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s depictions of the seasons give modern viewers insight into the everyday lives of 16th-century peasants and comparisons of socioeconomic class.

Jun 13, 2024By Kerigan Pickett, BA Art History with History concentration

pieter bruegel elder seasons

 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s six-panel series depicting the seasons gives modern viewers insight into what life was like on ordinary days in the 16th century. It is not uncommon to have accounts of important events that occurred in history, but the everyday life that even many modern viewers can still relate to is often obscured by time. The Seasons show us not only what the lower-class people of the Netherlandish Renaissance were like but also what the upper class was like through their act of commissioning such paintings.

 

Who Was Pieter Bruegel the Elder?

The Painter and the Buyer by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566. Source: The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish artist of the 16th century who specialized in genre painting. Bruegel’s life is partially obscured by a lack of surviving documentation, with most information about him being centered around his career rather than his personal life or beliefs. Most information about Bruegel comes from a single 17th-century art historian named Karl van Mander, who wrote about Bruegel in his book Schilderboeck. His place of birth has yet to be definitively known, with multiple locations being possible contenders, but we can be sure he was born between 1526 and 1530, near Breda in the Low Countries.

 

Bruegel began to pursue art as a career and traveled to Italy to enhance his skills. In 1551, he was admitted into a painters’ guild in Antwerp under the teacher Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter he later married in 1563 after a falling out with his maidservant who was also his liaison. Not only was his new father-in-law a prominent artist renowned across Europe for his skill and even commissioned by Henry VIII of England, but his mother-in-law, Mayken Verhulst, was a favored miniaturist in the region. Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his wife, Mayken Coecke van Aelst, had two sons, Pieter Bruegel the Younger and Jan Bruegel the Elder, who would also become artists. The legacy would continue with the two sons of Jan Bruegel the Elder—Ambrosius Bruegel and Jan Bruegel the Younger.

 

The Father of Genre Art

The Painter and The Connoisseur, c. 1565, possibly Bruegel’s self-portrait. Source: Wikipedia

 

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Marrying into a family with connections to the art world helped his career. In 1565, Bruegel completed a series of paintings for a wealthy city-dweller named Nicholas Jongelink. Nicholas Jongelink patronized many of Bruegel’s surviving paintings and was particularly interested in paintings depicting peasant life. For this, Bruegel is often hailed as the father of genre art. Genre art is a specific genre of art that shows ordinary people going about their everyday lives. It would have been viewed as rustic by the wealthy city patrons, who commissioned these paintings to be displayed in their homes.

 

It is unknown whether their patronage of peasant depictions came from a sense of superiority or a genuine fondness for the aesthetics of the lower classes. However, at least some sense of class superiority likely caused the patronage of such works. Nicholas Jongelink was a wealthy merchant, banker, and art collector from Antwerp who lived in a grand chateau. He was also a member of a society that drew clear distinctions between socioeconomic classes, with a structured hierarchy that likely affected Jongelink’s opinion of peasants. The paintings were displayed in Jongelink’s dining room, situated on the walls around the room like a frieze.

 

Hunters in the Snow

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565. Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

 

The first of the series is the painting Hunters in the Snow, which depicts the months of December and January. On the left in the foreground, hunters are trudging through the snow with their dogs, returning home with only meager offerings of meat, such as the limp rabbit tied to the stick on the farthest hunter’s back. Their steps seem laborious and defeated, highlighting the hardship of the winter months.

 

However, as we follow the hunters down the hill, we are confronted with a cheerier winter scene. People skate and play on the ice, swinging their partners around and sporting with sticks. Despite the play, work continues and can be seen throughout the painting. A woman carries a bundle of sticks across the bridge. A group of people stoke a fire in the background. Wagons are hauled across roads, heading into town in the distance. The scene unites the landscape and the people within it—they change the landscape with their humanity and create a scene of everyday life that is so dynamic and believable that it constructs a type of 16th-century time travel for modern viewers.

 

Gloomy Day

Gloomy Day by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565. Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

 

Gloomy Day is the painting that was made right after Hunters in the Snow. This painting depicts the cold, wet months of February and March. Peasants cut wood and willow switches from the leafless trees in the foreground. Men, women, and children all pitch in. In the bottom right corner is a group of people taking a break to eat. Behind them, a man is fixing the facade of his house. In the distant water of the background, the river rocks and pulls boats into its waves. A parent and child look up at the sky in the bottom left corner—a storm is on the horizon.

 

Bruegel needed to observe peasant life by blending into the crowd to ensure his customer was satisfied with the final product. According to Karl van Mander, in 1604, years after Bruegel’s death, Bruegel and his friend Hans Fanckert would attend peasant parties and gatherings to observe the festivities to record later with their paint brushes. Van Mander claims that Bruegel came from a peasant background, and though this is possible, art historians agree that it cannot be taken as fact since we do not know the accuracy of Van Mander’s information, nor is there anything to back up his claims. Due to Bruegel’s connections in the city of Antwerp, it is just as likely that Bruegel came from a wealthier background.

 

Haymaking and a Lost Painting

Haymaking by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565. Source: Lobkowicz Palace, Prague.

 

The series moves on to Haymaking, which depicts the months of June and July. It depicts peasants working in the field, creating piles of hay for various uses. Baskets of food are carried on the heads of passers-by in the foreground, who pass three workers who slump from the labor they’ve been doing under the hot summer sun. The Lobkowicz family, one of the oldest Bohemian noble families, acquired the painting sometime before 1870, and it remains at their palace in Prague. The painting that would have come before this one would have depicted April and May but was lost by 1659. Some sources say it was replaced by another painting meant to recreate the original lost painting, but this one was also lost.

 

The rise in popularity of satire in literature during the 16th century could have also played a role in why wealthy patrons of the city wanted to decorate their homes with scenes depicting peasants dancing and working in a rustic environment. As humanism gained popularity in the Renaissance and for the first time since the classical era, satire also became more common. Artwork followed in satirical content. Humanist interest in satire played a vital role in the rise of genre paintings in the changing art market. Bruegel’s tendency towards satirization can be viewed in his peasant depictions. Although the scenes are pastoral, realistic in their movement, and often lively in content, the peasants in the painting are painted in a way that makes their forms heavy, clumsy, and unrefined, similar to how the upper classes from urban areas would have viewed the country peasant class. In this way, Bruegel may be catering to his patron’s expectations of peasant life.

 

The Harvesters

The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

The Harvesters depicts the hot months of August and September. The scene shows the heat of the environment by casting everything in bright golds and yellows. Peasants sprawl under the shade of a tree for a break. Some eat, slurping their food from bowls, and some take short naps before the work resumes. The landscape is easy to follow back into the sprawling hills. The hills are full of wheat being harvested, and neat little piles are erected in the background.

 

The peasants appear exhausted, working long days in the intense heat with large hats to keep the sun off their skin. The field is large and far from being finished, indicating the hard work ahead of them. To a wealthy banker, the scene would look like one he has never experienced, so it would be easy for someone of such a background to judge the tired workers for their languishing, yet there is joy in the peasants’ faces as well. To modern viewers, the scene is one of community and a realistic display of what it means to work out of necessity.

 

The Return of the Heard

The Return of the Herd by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565. Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

 

The Return of the Herd is the final painting of the series, depicting the months of October and November when the leaves have fallen and the air begins to grow cold. The painting depicts a key event of peasant life in 16th-century Northern Europe when the cattle are driven home for the coming winter. The grand nature in the background is sublime. It is a powerful scene of the grandeur of nature and how peasants play their role in interacting with the landscape in a way that links them and allows humans to become a part of nature.

 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s depictions of the seasons in this six-panel series were created for a wealthy banker in Antwerp, and there is a possibility that the artworks were created as a form of mild satire or a way for the upper-class patron to feel superior. Nevertheless, there is a lively realism to his paintings that invites the viewer into the scene’s atmosphere. His contribution to genre art allows modern viewers and art historians the special privilege of bearing witness to the everyday lives of 16th-century peasants.

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By Kerigan PickettBA Art History with History concentrationKerigan has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Northern Iowa, where she also minored in History and earned a Museum Studies Certificate. She is also certified to tutor through the Saga Coach program by Saga Education, and she interned at the Cedar Falls Historical Society in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She is passionate about art, history, and writing. Her favorite historical subject is Tudor history. She currently runs a blog on WordPress called Gilded Histories, where she posts her latest art historical research in the form of academic articles.