For the Holiday Season: Pieter Brueghel, the Elder

True, you may not know him. His surviving œuvre numbers less than fifty, most of it at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. He did father other artistic, probably better-recognized Brueghels. And years ago, he had another five minutes of fame in a film called ‘The Mill and the Cross.” The film is an imaginative romp by a modern artist (a filmmaker) into how Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525/30-1569) might have produced a monumental work of art, the “Way to the Calvary.”

The film doesn’t enlighten us, modern folks, on Brueghel—about whom nearly nothing is known, and who was regarded as a minor artist for 300 years. But the creation of an artwork is often fascinating and many art historians, intrigued with the complexity and diversity of Brueghel’s fifty works, have devoted countless words interpreting them. Two, in particular, merit a lingering, critical look.

This painting is on display at the Kunsthistor...

“The Peasant Wedding” at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Art History) in Vienna, Austria

Dated the year before Brueghel died (1568) and now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, they are of especial interest these celebratory holy days. Portraying peasants celebrating a wedding (“The Peasant Wedding Feast”) or dancing at a kermis or church fair (“The Peasant Dance”), they illustrate Brueghel’s affinity with French Realism of the 19th-century.

Peter Brueghel the Elder: “The Peasant Da...

“The Peasant Dance”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brueghel’s small body of work is, in fact, sweeping—biblical narratives (such as “Way to the Calvary”), “moralizing” allegories of epic proportions, panoramic landscapes and rustic peasant celebrations—earning Brueghel many labels: Brueghel le drôle (funny), Peasant Brueghel, Brueghel le philosophe, or Brueghel the pictorial novelist which aptly captures his realist tendencies. For more: Pieter Brueghel on Web Museum.

He animates his canvases (actually, wooden panels) with large numbers of Flemish citizens as participants, as spectators of some “main” event”, or as part of a landscape. In all cases, realistic details instruct the modern viewer on the costumes and physiognomy of the ordinary Flemish of the time.

Brueghel created his peasant paintings at the height of the Italian Renaissance, dominant even in 16th century Northern Europe. This style favored mythological and religious themes and idealized figures, but many Flemish painters like Brueghel stayed true to the local tradition of painting scenes of daily life, populated by figures with recognizably imperfect human, rather than godlike, features. The “Peasant” pictures are arresting. The density of content (so much going on) compels a long look, and the orientation—almost intimidating and “in-your-face”—dares the viewer to join in the festivities.

Why do these paintings fascinate? Surely, it’s exciting to see an artist buck the trend of what’s a la mode. But it’s Brueghel’s audacity that floors me: realism in spite of prevailing idealism; Everyman on par with the privileged. These, in the 16th century!

We all have some sense of what realism is, its commitment to “faithful rendition” of the observed and its denial of symbolic meanings. Three hundred years later, in the historically recognized movement of 19th-century Realism, you’ll find paintings of peasants going about their daily life, as Brueghel had done.

Art historians, predictably, see diverse meanings in the “Peasant” paintings. Established artistic canons of the 1600s compel some to see moralizing and symbolic elements evident in many Brueghels. But others see a portrayal of peasant life for its own sake in well-rendered details of physiognomy and in a viewpoint that places the beholder or the artist on the same or nearly the same plane as the figures. Of “The Peasant Dance,” Klaus Demus says (in Seipel, Wilfried, ed. Pieter Breugel the Elder at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1999, p. 139):

…… this late work by the humorist is not only not satire but not even mockery or laughter or irony. To focus on catching traces of a deeper meaning and double meanings in the representation mean missing out on the wonderful ethos by which objective realism is brought to the highest design.

The viewpoint in both “The Peasant Wedding Feast” and “The Peasant Dance” invites the artist or beholder to actually take a role in the painting, albeit unseen. The effect of this device is to shift attention towards the act of viewing or of painting. No longer is the artist merely a chronicler of events, the role typically assumed by Renaissance painters; her artwork becomes an expression of her unique perceptions of the subject. Similarly, the “in-your-face” orientation draws in the beholders, breaks down their detachment and compels them to confront the realities (perhaps, the message), however unpleasant, contained in the painting. This pictorial viewpoint is modern, one that Gustave Courbet and other French Realists deliberately take centuries later.

Towards the end of Brueghel’s life, religious tensions between ruling Catholic classes and Protestant Reformers triggered great upheavals, culminating in an 80-year war. Economic losses from the shifting of trade away from Antwerp and a disastrous drought in 1560 aggravated tensions, making life generally unbearable for Flemish citizens. The joyful life vividly chronicled in Brueghel’s peasant paintings would seem to negate reality but they could also have been created as a form of escape, an expression of longing for simple pleasures, a nostalgic look at what life used to be. If so, Brueghel differs from the French Realists whose political and social agenda made them paint harsh realities revealing unpopular political and social sentiments. Still, in presenting art as personal expression, Brueghel is arguably modern.

Brueghel did not ignore prevailing art practices. Art historians see definite influences of Italian Renaissance in his use of vibrant shades of red, blue, and green and in his classical composition of pictorial elements that move the eye around his paintings. For instance, the long table in “The Peasant Wedding Feast” runs towards the corner of the barn, a tradition in similar corner motifs in Last Supper paintings.

Brueghel pursued his craft with originality and audacity, qualities we expect of great artists, but now rare in these times of market forces and “money talks” principles. I hope presenting these celebratory pictures vindicates Pieter Brueghel’s genius, in our lifetime.

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