Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Nina Serebrennikov

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online August 2011 | | DOI:
Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Pieter Bruegel the Elder (b. c. 1526–d. 1569) is arguably the least-documented artist of stature in 16th-century Europe. We are not certain where or when he was born or how he was educated. No correspondence has been passed down to us, and very little is known about his various commissions. Why he left the thriving city of Antwerp for the smaller and more staid Brussels can only be conjectured. We do know that he painted relatively traditional subject matter—Boschian fantasies, the peasants at work and play, and biblical narratives—for wealthy patrons, and we are certain that he executed those panels considerably more skillfully than his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. The earliest sources were ambivalent when trying to explain his art. Writing a short four decades after the artist’s death, Karel van Mander reported that Bruegel would often pretend to be a peasant in order to participate in fairs and rustic ceremonies so he could watch the participants eat, drink, and dance and then reproduce those antics in paint. Yet van Mander adds that there was concealed meaning in these compositions; the magpie perched on the gallows, for example, stood for gossiping tongues. In the 20th century the literature on this artist was characterized by that polarity between Bruegel the painter of peasant customs and Bruegel the learned artist who imbued his works with allegorical significance. Subsequently, however, instead of trying to determine what Bruegel may have intended, many scholars are reconstructing how his audiences may have interpreted his art, a topic that is broader and at least marginally better documented.

Article.  10668 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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