Pieter Bruegel The Elder: A Flemish Renaissance Master

Pieter Bruegel was a Flemish Renaissance master, famous for his lively depictions of peasant scenes and busy landscapes which made him a pioneer of genre painting.

Aug 9, 2021By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
pieter bruegel tower babel peasant wedding
Details of The Building of the Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna; and The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1567, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the first of a prolific dynasty of Flemish painters. With his vivid portrayals of peasants, minutely detailed landscapes, and scenes filled with fantastic monsters, Bruegel was a unique artist, and is today considered  a master of the Flemish Renaissance and a pioneer of genre painting.


The Mystery Surrounding Pieter Bruegel’s Early Life

pieter bruegel the tower of babel
The Building of the Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


Although he is a famous Flemish Renaissance artist today, many mysteries surround Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s early life. Did he take his name after his father,  a custom that already existed in the 16th century? Did his family name come from the village where he was born? What was the exact location of his birth? Did he come from a peasant family or a more educated background? Historians cannot agree on these questions and several theories coexist today.


Karel van Mander, one of the most well-known Flemish painters and art historians of the time, published his famous “Book of Painters” (Het Schilder-Boek) in 1604. Along with Giorgio Vasari’s biographical stories of renaissance painters, van Mander’s book is one of the primary sources of information for the life and work of both the Flemish painters and other figures from art history. Het Schilder-Boek recounts the life and work of more than 250 painters, from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to 16th-century German, Italian, and Netherlandish artists.


flemish painters the harvesters painting
The Harvesters (Late Summer), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Van Mander wrote a chapter about Pieter Bruegel. He described the painter’s birthplace, a village near Breda, from which he took his name Brueghel; van Mander used two different spellings for the painter’s name. Yet, the mystery remains, as two different places match his description. The first is Bruegel, a village near Breda in today’s southern Netherlands. The second is the village of Brogel or Brueghel near the city of Bree, formerly known as Brida or Breda in Latin, in modern Belgium, close to the Dutch border.

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There is also no certainty as to his date of birth, although specialists have established it was between 1525 and 1530. What is clear is the year Pieter Bruegel joined the Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp, 1551. According to van Mander, Bruegel worked before that for another of the great Flemish painters, Pieter Coecke van Aelst. In 1563, Bruegel married Coecke van Aelst’s daughter, Mayken Coecke.


While Crossing The Alps, Bruegel Swallowed The Mountains And Rocks To Spit Them Out On His Canvases And Panels

pieter bruegel parable of the sower painting
Parable of the Sower, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1557, via the Timken Museum of Art


This strange quote from Karel van Mander’s book refers to Pieter Bruegel’s trip to Italy. During the 1520s and 30s, artists from the Low Countries traveled to Italy as part of their artistic education. The “fiamminghi,” as they were called, studied the Italian masters and copied their work. Following this trend, Bruegel went to Italy in 1553-54. Yet, the dramatic mountainous sceneries of the Alps caught his attention instead of the old masters’ paintings.


The goal of his trip was not the discovery of the Italian masters, but knowledge of nature. He returned home with numerous landscape drawings, some of which served as print models. At the time, Pieter Bruegel worked for Hieronymus Cock, a print publisher and distributor based in Antwerp and a fellow member of the Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp. Hieronymus probably sponsored Bruegel’s journey to Italy. Back then, prints constituted one of the few means to circulate knowledge. So Bruegel drew dramatic mountainous landscapes, something never seen in the flat grounds of the Dutch and Flemish territories.


pieter bruegel large alpine landscape engraving
Large Alpine Landscape, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Johannes and Lucas van Doetecum, ca. 1555-56, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Between 1555 and 1556, Pieter Bruegel made a series of twelve drawings of alpine scenery, which served as printing models. The artist developed his landscape drawing technique, influencing all his future production. Bruegel found inspiration in the Italian masters’ work; however, he freed himself from any rules in order to elaborate his unique style. He depicted natural elements in a precise and detailed way. Every component had the same importance; a key aspect of Bruegel’s style.


Bruegel As The “Second Hieronymus Bosch”

pieter bruegel dull gret mad meg
Mad Meg (Dull Gret), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561, via Museum Mayer van den Bergh


Pieter Bruegel’s work has often been compared to the paintings of his predecessor, Hieronymus Bosch, a master of the Early Netherlandish Renaissance. Bruegel never met Bosch as he was born almost ten years after his death, but he knew his work. There is undeniably a significant similarity in their paintings; chaotic landscapes with so many figures the eye hardly knows where to look. Bosch notably inspired Pieter Bruegel’s early work, especially his representation of the evil forces governing the world.


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Detail of Mad Meg (Dull Gret), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561, via the Museum Mayer van den Bergh


One of Bruegel’s drawings, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, was even sold as a work of Hieronymus Bosch. The 1556 drawing bears Bruegel’s signature, while the 1557 engraved version features “Hieronymus Bos. Inventor” in the lower-left corner. Maybe Bruegel made it after one of Bosch’s works or deliberately added Bosch’s signature to sell the engraving, as Bosch was more famous than Bruegel at the time.


pieter bruegel big fish eat little fish
Big Fish Eat Little Fish (engraving), Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter van der Heyden, 1557, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art; with Big Fish Eat Little Fish (drawing), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1556, via the Albertina Museum Vienna


The difference between Bosch’s and Bruegel’s work lies in their vision of the world. Bosch’s paintings illustrate the failings of humankind — he vividly depicted raging infernos, the punishment for men’s wickedness. On the other hand, Bruegel had a less dark vision of humanity. Evil forces were part of the world, but they were less noticeable. Furthermore, Bruegel exalted the divine presence in his paintings by meticulously depicting detailed natural elements — a testimony to God’s creation. For Bosch, humans were doomed to a life in hell, while Bruegel’s vision was more hopeful — people tried to live their life, avoiding the devil’s pitfalls.


“Bruegel The Peasant” Or “Pieter The Droll”

pieter bruegel peasant wedding painting
The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1567, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


The golden age of Pieter Bruegel’s relatively short artistic career coincided with his relocation from Antwerp to Brussels in 1563. Peasant scenes became his subject of choice, and he made fewer fantastic illustrations.


Karel van Mander described Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his Schilder-Boek: “Nature was wonderfully felicitous in her choice when, in an obscure village in Brabant, she selected the gifted and witty Pieter Brueghel to paint her and her peasants, and to contribute to the everlasting fame of painting in the Netherlands.”


pieter bruegel children games painting
Children’s Games, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


Van Mander also wrote about the drolleries painted by Bruegel. He explained that spectators could not help but smile or laugh at the sight of the artist’s work. Such a reaction from the public hugely contributed to his fame at the time. Indeed the 16th century in the Low Countries was a time of political and social uncertainty. The Dutch Revolts started to rage during the 1560s. Along with that, plagues, poverty, and religious despotism dictated the lives of ordinary people.


Bruegel did not paint gods or noblemen, as the Italian Renaissance artists did. Instead, peasants and simple folk populated his landscapes. Everyday life fascinated the painter. Bruegel had a good client and dear friend, the merchant Hans Frankert with whom he shared a passion for the observation of peasant life. Bruegel and Frankert enjoyed going to village fairs and weddings, acting as members of one of the spouse’s families, even offering gifts. They witnessed the simple manners of peasants, their dances, love stories, and feasts. Bruegel depicted them with great humanity, portraying their everyday struggles and joys.


Pioneer Of Genre Painting: The Hunters In The Snow

pieter bruegel hunters in the snow painting
Hunters in the Snow (Winter), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


Pieter Bruegel painted the Hunters in the Snow oil on panel in 1565. This masterpiece fully illustrates Bruegel’s mastery of genre painting. Genre painting is a type of art that depicts scenes from everyday life and the ordinary activities of simple folks. Genre scenes flourished during the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age of painting. During Bruegel the Elder’s time,  religious paintings were the norm. Instead, Pieter relegated religious scenes to the background of his busy landscapes or simply cut them out.


pieter bruegel hunters in the snow painting detail
Detail of Hunters in the Snow (Winter), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


The Hunters in the Snow was part of the Months of the Year cycle, a famous ensemble of six large panel paintings illustrating six periods of the year. Pieter Bruegel made this series for Nicolaes Jonghelinck, a merchant banker and art collector living in Antwerp. The panels were probably destined for the walls of his ornate dining room. Only five out of the six panels still exist today. Along with the Months of the Year, Jonghelinck also owned other works by Bruegel, a total of sixteen paintings, including the famous Tower of Babel, oil on wood panel.


Although we count only four seasons today, in the 16th century, people divided the year into six two-month periods. The Hunters in the Snow undoubtedly represents the winter months of December and January. Bruegel painted a snow-covered landscape, filled with countless people and animals, illustrating everyday activities during this time of year. He used a restricted range of colors and played with the contrast of lighter and darker tones, achieving a realistic rendition.


pieter bruegel hunters in the snow painting detail
Detail of Hunters in the Snow (Winter), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


The scene perfectly depicts the darkest period of the year. Hunters come back from their expedition bearing only meager game, a fox, while peasants try to control a fire threatening to set the inn ablaze. Another house burns further away in the landscape. The ravens in the sky strangely resemble the dark figures of skaters on the ice. On the one hand, the scene is full of unseen threats. On the other hand, adults and children carelessly skate on the frozen waters of the pond – a truthful illustration of the world as seen by Bruegel.


Pieter Bruegel The Elder And His Progeny: A Dynasty Of Flemish Painters

pieter brueghel the younger bird trap painting
The Bird Trap, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1631, via Sotheby’s


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as he is known today, and his wife Mayken Coecke had two sons: Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder. Bruegel’s sons used the original spelling of their name, which their father had changed in 1559 by dropping the “h.” Both of them followed their father’s artistic path. Pieter adopted his father’s style and made numerous copies of his work, because of the high demand for the master’s paintings. Jan built his reputation as a master among Flemish painters, during the early 17th-century Dutch golden age, often working with his close friend Peter Paul Rubens.


jan brueghel the elder flowers wooden vessel
Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, Jan Brueghel the Elder, ca. 1606-07, via the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna


Both Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder also had sons who carried on the family’s artistic tradition, making a dynasty of several generations of painters. Today, Pieter Bruegel the Elder is seen as a master of the Flemish Renaissance. He undoubtedly was a unique and visionary painter and illustrator, offering us vivid representations of the people of his time.

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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.