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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, nicknamed ‘Peasant Bruegel’ was probably the most significant and exciting painter in the Northern Europe during the middle part of the sixteenth century. His nickname “Peasant Bruegel” indicates to his subjects: peasant life, proverbs and genre scenes, the New Testament topics set among common folks of contemporary Flanders.
The date and place of Bruegel’s birth are uncertain, most of the scholars consider he was born near Breda in the period between 1525- 1530. Until 1559 he spelt his name ‘Brueghel’, then as ‘Bruegel’, the reason for this change is unknown and his sons retained ‘h’ in their names.
Very probably the young Bruegel was apprenticed to Pieter Coeck van Aelst (1502–1550), a leading Antwerp artist, sculptor, architect, and designer of tapestry and stained glass, whose daughter Bruegel would later marry. In 1551 Bruegel became a Master of the Antwerp Guild. In 1552, 1553 and possibly for part of 1554 he traveled abroad. In 1552 he was in the south of Italy, visiting Reggio Calabria, Messina, Palermo and Naples, and in the following year he was in Rome, where he came into contact with a well-known painter and miniaturist of the time, Giulio Clovio, who created a small-scale picture of the Tower of Babel on ivory, and a View of Lyons (France). Both works are now lost. On his return journey to the Netherlands, Bruegel evidently spent some time in Switzerland, where he made many drawings of the Alps.
Back in Antwerp (late 1554-1555) Pieter Bruegel started working for Hieronymus Cock (1510-1570), the Antwerp engraver and publisher of prints. His Alpine sketches formed the basis of a number of elaborate landscape designs (dated from 1555 onwards), which were actually engraved by other artists. Cock was apparently pleased with Bruegel’s work for he was soon employing him on figure compositions as well. Of these, the serious of The Seven Deadly Sins (1556-7) and the famous Big Fish Eat Little Fish (engraved by Van der Heyden in 1557) are typical early examples. For the rest of his life Bruegel was active as both a painter and designer of prints, and the two activities were closely linked.
In 1563 Bruegel married Mayken, the daughter of Pieter Coeck and Mayken Verhulst Bessemers. His mother-in-law was also a painter, engaged in miniatures. Later, after the death of her son-in-law, she would give the first lessons in painting to his sons, Pieter and Jan. The couple settled in Brussels. In 1564 their first son, future painter Pieter Bruegel the Younger (d. 1638) was born. At that time Bruegel acquired a patron and friend, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy Antwerp merchant, who would eventually made a collection of 16 Bruegel’s works. Thus he commissioned a series of the Months, unfortunately only 5 of 12 paintings survived, The Hunters in the Snow (January), The Gloomy Day (February), Haymaking (July), The Corn Harvest (August), The Return of the Herd (November).
In 1568 his second son, Jan, also a future painter, Jan Bruegel the Elder, ‘Velvet’ Bruegel (d.1625) was born.
During the last six years of his life Bruegel was much influenced by Italian Renaissance art, whose monumentality of form he found increasingly sympathetic. This influence is evident in The Peasant Wedding, The Peasant Dance and The Peasant and the Birdnester: the figures are now larger in scale and closer to the spectator, the viewpoint is lower and there is less concern with the setting. In spite of these radical developments, however, Bruegel continued to produce paintings in his old style, with tiny figures in a panoramic space.
In September 1569 Bruegel died, and was buried in Notre Dame de la Chapelle, Brussels; in 1578 died Mayken Bruegel, the orphaned children were brought up by their grandmother.
The surviving pictures of Bruegel are few in number – under fifty.
“Although Bruegel was famous in his own lifetime, the archaic tone of much of his imagery and his refusal to adopt the idealized figure style evolved by Italian Renaissance artists had, in sophisticated circles, an adverse effect on his reputation both during his life and after his death” (Keith Roberts). Bruegel’s works did not agree with current aesthetic theories of his time, but they wonderfully match to the tastes of our contemporaries.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 – September 9, 1569) was a Netherlandish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (Genre Painting). He is nicknamed 'Peasant Bruegel' to distinguish him from other members of the Brueghel dynasty, but is also the one generally meant when the context does not make clear which Bruegel is being referred to. From 1559 he dropped the 'h' from his name and started signing his paintings as Bruegel. There are records that he was born in Breda, Netherlands, but it is uncertain whether the Dutch town of Breda or the Belgian town of Bree, called Breda in Latin, is meant. He was the son of a peasant residing in the village of Breughel. He was an apprentice of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter Mayken he later married. He spent some time in France and Italy, and then went to Antwerp, where in 1551 he was accepted as a master in the painter's guild. He traveled to Italy soon after, and then returned to Antwerp before settling in Brussels permanently 10 years later. He died there on 9 September 1569. He was the father of Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder. Both became painters, but as they were very young children when their father died, neither received any training from him. According to Carel van Mander, it is likely that they were instructed by their grandmother Mayken Verhulst van Aelst, who was also an artist. In Bruegel's later years he painted in a simpler style than the Italianate art that prevailed in his time. The most obvious influence on his art is the older Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch, particularly in Bruegel's early demonological paintings such as The Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet (Mad Meg). It was in nature, however, that he found his greatest inspirations as he is identified as being a master of landscapes. It was in these landscapes that Bruegel created a story, with almost several scenes seemingly combined in one painting. Such works can be seen in The Fall of the Rebel Angels and the previously mentioned The Triumph of Death. 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. His 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. For example, the painting Netherlandish Proverbs illustrates dozens of then-contemporary aphorisms (many of them still in use in current Dutch or Flemish), and Children's Games shows the variety of amusements enjoyed by young people. His winter landscapes of 1565 (e.g. Hunters in the Snow) are taken as corroborative evidence of the severity of winters during the Little Ice Age. Using abundant spirit and comic power, he created some of the early images of acute social protest in art history. Examples include paintings such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (a satire of the conflicts of the Reformation) and engravings like The Ass in the School and Strongboxes Battling Piggybanks. On his deathbed he reportedly ordered his wife to burn the most subversive of his drawings to protect his family from political persecution. Extracted from Wikipedia
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. by S. Lvov. Moscow. 1971.
Bruegel. by N. Gershenzon-Tchegodayeva. Moscow. 1983.
Painting of Europe. XIII-XX centuries. Encyclopedic Dictionary. Moscow. Iskusstvo. 1999.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Prints and Drawings. by Nadine M. Orenstein (Editor), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pieter Bruegel. Yale Univ Pr, 2001.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna by Pieter Bruegel (Editor), Wilfried Seipel (Editor), Kunsthistorisches museu. Skira, 1999.
Pieter Bruegel: The Elder (Masters of Art Series) by Wolfgang Stechow, Pieter Bruegel. Harry N Abrams, 1990.
Pieter Bruegel by Philippe Roberts-Jones. Harry N Abrams , 2002.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric (Studies in Netherlandish Art and Cultural History) by Mark A. Meadow. .V. Waanders Uitgeverji , 2004.
Inside Bruegel: The Play of Images in Children's Games by Edward A. Snow. North Point Press, 1997.