Pieter Bruegel the Elder / by Chris Hall

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Buyer (Self Portrait), 1565

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and the Buyer (Self Portrait), 1565

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 – 1569) was a Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes.  He received the nickname “Peasant Bruegel”or “Bruegel the Peasant” for his habit of dressing in peasant's clothing in order to socialize at weddings and other celebrations, to gain inspiration and record details for his paintings.  His earthy and unsentimental depictions of village life rituals, including agriculture, hunts, festivals, dances, and games, are a unique window into the long vanished folk culture of the 16th century.

“Peasant Bruegel's” art often has a comic, satiric spirit, bordering on sharp social criticism, such as in his painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.  On his deathbed, Bruegel had his wife burn the more subversive drawings in his collection, to protect his family from the growing political persecution resulting from the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation.  He died in Brussels on 9 September 1569. 

I've always appreciated “Peasant Bruegel's” art.  It seems that much of the art from his time focuses on flattering the ruling establishment, Princes, Kings, and the Church.  There is a Renaissance glut of portraiture and mythological subjects from the Bible and Classical Antiquity.  Bruegel's art stands out, not only for its imagination, but also for its depiction of the lives of the lower strata of society.  

I also appreciate Bruegel's art for its social commentary, another rare thing in Renaissance art.  In his painting of The Misanthrope, for example, we see the Misanthrope about to walk down a path littered with caltrops (small iron anti-personal spikes), while a grotesque figure sneaks behind him and robs him of his purse.  The inscription, in Flemish, reads, “Because the world is perfidious, I am going into mourning.”  Pieter Bruegel the Elder would criticize the misanthrope, for retiring from a cruel society, instead of actively trying to change it.  Pieter Bruegel the Elder's legacy lived on through his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, who inherited his father's artistic talent and satirical nature.