Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Master Drawer's Comeback
The picture art historians paint of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1528-1569) has changed quite dramatically in recent decades. He was long dubbed ‘Peasant Bruegel’, a man thoroughly familiar with the country life he depicted so well. However, the emphasis gradually shifted and Bruegel became a typical city-dweller who
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Connoisseur. c. 1565. Drawing, 25.5 × 21.5 cm. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
looked down on, and to some extent poked fun at, country life. The most recent studies have elevated him almost to a man of learning, one who moved in Antwerp's humanist circles. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we know few concrete biographical details about him and that the preservation of his oeuvre has been fragmentary. Moreover, most of the hypotheses about Bruegel are based on his oeuvre as a painter, even though he was also a keen and talented draughtsman. In fact, we know of no paintings by Bruegel from the period before 1557, only drawings and designs for engravings.
In an exhibition at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in the Summer of 2001, Bruegel the master drawer was rehabilitated. This exhibition, which showed 55 of the 61 drawings attributed to Bruegel and a complete overview of his designs, then moved on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A brief biographical sketch would seem indispensable if we are to put this work in its proper context. Though the details are scanty, it is possible to trace Bruegel's life story reasonably well. In the late 1540s-early 1550s we find him in the Antwerp studio of his teacher, the painter Pieter Coecke. In 1552 Bruegel crossed the Alps heading for Italy, where he spent time in Calabria, Naples and Rome. It is not clear if he also went to Venice, but there is no doubt he was strongly influenced by Titian. After his return from Italy in 1554 Bruegel often received commissions from the
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Skaters near St Joris Gate. c.1559.
Drawing, 20.8 × 29.3 cm. Private collection.
Antwerp print-publisher Hieronymus Cock. In 1562 he moved to Brussels and a year later married Mayken Coecke, the daughter of his former teacher. Judging by the now famous works, it was in this period that he really began to blossom as a painter. Yet he also continued to draw.
Bruegel's career was closely bound up with that of
Hieronymus Cock, a pioneer of professional print-publishing in Northern Europe. Like his counterparts in Italy, Cock contracted out to specialised craftsmen the various stages in the process of producing books of prints (e.g. creating the design, engraving the composition on the copper plate and printing from the plate). This modernised production process and Antwerp's development into an important printing centre enabled Cock to publish his books of prints in editions of a size hitherto unknown.
Bruegel was Cock's preferred designer and initially supplied him mainly with landscapes. With his flair for large compositions in which every detail nevertheless comes into its own, his unerring feel for the right perspective and for light effects, Bruegel excelled in this genre. The subjects of some drawings (a diminutive village amidst imposing mountains, a southern landscape) and a flamboyant use of lines betray the influence of his Italian sojourn. In terms of workmanship, the twelve compositions marketed by Cock under the collective name ‘The large landscapes’ mark a high point in his career. The combination of biblical subjects, southern views and scenes of the Flemish countryside guarantees magnificent drawings, which might even be said to anticipate the great landscape art of the seventeenth century.
From 1556 the tastes of Flemish print collectors began to change, at least if we can judge from the commissions Bruegel received from Cock: few if any landscapes, but numerous allegorical drawings. Village and town took centre stage and the human figure now played a lead role. The allegories often conceal a moral lesson, but Bruegel presented them in an extraordinary setting overflowing with symbolism, absurd humour and bizarre fantasies. One of the most famous is The Big Fish Eat the Small, but in the cycles The Seven Deadly Sins and The Seven Virtues, separated by a loose sheet depicting The Last Judgement, he also attained new artistic heights. These sort of drawings earned Bruegel the title of ‘the second Bosch’ even during his lifetime. It is doubtful if Bruegel ever actually saw the original work of Hieronymus Bosch, the great master of the fantastic; but he must have seen various copies of Bosch's compositions, for large numbers of them were in circulation in the early sixteenth century.
Bruegel did not, however, restrict himself to landscapes and allegories. Some of his very best drawings are of ships and fairs or religious scenes. During his ‘Brussels period’ (from 1562), besides some of his most famous paintings, he also produced successful drawings such as the intriguing The Painter and the Connoisseur. The two people depicted here are each other's opposites: a confident, stern painter and a gullible-looking patron, who already has his hand in his purse. Though probably not a self-portrait, this drawing is seen as an expression of Bruegel's longing for artistic independence.
Bruegel died in 1569. In a posthumous ode one of his greatest friends, the map-maker Abraham Ortelius, described him as ‘the most perfect painter of his time’. Ortelius was probably right, but he did not go far enough. Bruegel was not only an excellent painter, he was also a highly gifted draughtsman.
Translated by Alison Mouthaan-Gwillim.
Nadine M. Ohrenstein (ed.), Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Prints and Drawings. New Haven (ct): Yale University Press, 2001; 320 pp. isbn 0-300-09014-5.