There is but little information
about his life. According to Carel van Mander's Het Schilderboeck (Book of Painters), published in Amsterdam
in 1604 (35 years after Bruegel's death), Bruegel was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a leading Antwerp artist
who had located in Brussels. The head of a large workshop, Coecke was a sculptor, architect, and designer of tapestry and
stained glass who had traveled in Italy and in Turkey. Although Bruegel's earliest surviving
works show no stylistic dependence on Coecke's Italianate art, connections with Coecke's compositions can be detected in later
years, particularly after 1563, when Bruegel married Coecke's daughter Mayken. In any case, the apprenticeship with Coecke
represented an early contact with a humanistic milieu. Through Coecke Bruegel became linked indirectly to another tradition
as well. Coecke's wife, Maria Verhulst Bessemers, was a painter known for
her work in watercolour or tempera, a suspension of pigments in egg yolk or a glutinous substance, on linen. The technique was widely
practiced in her hometown of Mechelen (Malines) and was
later employed by Bruegel. It is also in the works of Mechelen's artists that allegorical and peasant thematic material first
appear. These subjects, unusual in Antwerp, were later
treated by Bruegel. In 1551 or 1552, Bruegel set off on the customary northern artist's journey to Italy, probably by way of France. From several extant paintings, drawings, and etchings, it can be deduced that he traveled beyond Naples to Sicily,
possibly as far as Palermo, and that in 1553 he lived for some time in Rome, where he worked with a celebrated miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, an artist greatly influenced by Michelangelo and later a patron of the young El Greco. The inventory
of Clovio's estate shows that he owned a number of paintings and drawings by Bruegel as well as a miniature done by the two
artists in collaboration. It was in Rome, in 1553, that Bruegel produced his earliest signed and dated painting, “Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias.” The holy figures in this painting were probably done by
Maarten de Vos, a painter from Antwerp then working
The earliest surviving
works, including two drawings with Italian scenery sketched on the southward journey and dated 1552, are landscapes. A number
of drawings of Alpine regions, produced between 1553 and 1556, indicate the great impact of the mountain experience on this
man from the Low Countries. With the possible exception of a drawing of a mountain valley by
Leonardo da Vinci, the landscapes resulting from this journey are almost without parallel in European art for their rendering
of the overpowering grandeur of the high mountains. Very few of the drawings were done on the spot, and several were done
after Bruegel's return, at an unknown date, to Antwerp.
The vast majority are free compositions, combinations of motifs sketched on the journey through the Alps. Some were intended as designs for engravings commissioned by HiŽronymus Cock, an engraver and Antwerp's foremost publisher of prints.
Bruegel was to work for Cock
until his last years, but, from 1556 on, he concentrated, surprisingly enough, on satirical, didactic, and moralizing subjects,
often in the fantastic or grotesque manner of HiŽronymus Bosch, imitations of whose works were very popular at the time. Other artists were content with a more
or less close imitation of Bosch, but Bruegel's inventiveness lifted his designs above mere imitation, and he soon found ways
to express his ideas in a much different manner. His early fame rested on prints published by Cock after such designs. But
the new subject matter and the interest in the human figure did not lead to the abandonment of landscape. Bruegel, in fact,
extended his explorations in this field. Side by side with his mountain compositions, he began to draw the woods of the countryside,
turned then to Flemish villages, and, in 1562, to townscapes with the towers and gates of Amsterdam.
The double interest in
landscape and in subjects requiring the representation of human figures also informed, often jointly, the paintings that Bruegel
produced in increasing number after his return from Italy. All of his paintings, even those in which the landscape appears as the dominant feature, have some narrative
content. Conversely, in those that are primarily narrative, the landscape setting often carries part of the meaning. Dated
paintings have survived from each year of the period except for 1558 and 1561. Within this decade falls Bruegel's marriage
to Mayken Coecke in the Church of Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels in 1563 and his move to that city, in which Mayken and her mother were living. His residence recently was
restored and turned into a Bruegel museum. There is, however, some doubt as to the correctness of the identification.
In Brussels, Bruegel produced his greatest paintings, but only few designs for engravings, for the
connection with HiŽronymus Cock may have become less close after Bruegel left Antwerp. Another reason for the concentration on painting may have been his growing success
in this field. Among his patrons was Cardinal Antione Perrenot de Granvelle, president of the council of state in the Netherlands, in whose palace in Brussels
the sculptor Jacques Jonghelinck had a studio. He and Bruegel had traveled in Italy at the same time, and his brother, a rich Antwerp collector, Niclaes, was Bruegel's greatest patron, having by 1566 acquired 16
of his paintings. Another patron was Abraham Ortelius, who in a memorable obituary called Bruegel the most perfect artist of the century. Most of his
paintings were done for collectors.
Bruegel died in 1569 and
was buried in Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels.
Artistic evolution and affinities
In addition to a great many drawings and engravings by Bruegel, 45 authenticated paintings
from a much larger output now lost have been preserved. Of this number, about a third is concentrated in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, reflecting the keen
interest of the Habsburg princes in the 16th and 17th centuries in Bruegel's art.
In his earliest surviving works, Bruegel appears as essentially a landscape artist,
indebted to, but transcending, the Flemish 16th-century landscape tradition, as well as to Titian and to other Venetian landscape
painters. After his return from Italy, he turned to
multifigure compositions, representations of crowds of people loosely disposed throughout the picture and usually seen from
above. Here, too, antecedents can be found in the art of HiŽronymus Bosch and of other painters closer in time to Bruegel.
In 1564 and 1565, under the spell
of Italian art and especially of Raphael, Bruegel reduced the number of figures drastically, the few being larger and placed
closely together in a very narrow space. In 1565, however, he turned again to landscape with the celebrated series known as
“Labours of the Months.” In the five
of these that have survived, he subordinated the figures to the great lines of the landscape. Later on, crowds appear again,
disposed in densely concentrated groups.
Bruegel's last works often show
a striking affinity with Italian art. The diagonal spatial arrangement of the figures in “Peasant Wedding” recalls
Venetian compositions. Though transformed into peasants, the figures in such works as “Peasant and Bird Nester” (1568) have
something of the grandeur of Michelangelo. In the very last works, two trends appear; on the one hand, a combined monumentalization
and extreme simplification of figures and, on the other hand, an exploration of the expressive quality of the various moods
conveyed by landscape. The former trend is evident in his “Hunters in the Snow” (1565), one of
his winter paintings. The latter is seen in the radiant, sunny atmosphere of “The Magpie on the Gallows” and in
the threatening and sombre character of “The Storm at Sea,” an unfinished work,
probably Bruegel's last painting.
He was no less interested in
observing the works of man. Noting every detail with almost scientific exactness, he rendered ships with great accuracy in
several paintings and in a series of engravings. A most faithful picture of contemporary building operations is shown in the
two paintings of “The Tower of Babel” (one 1563 [see
photograph], the other undated). The Rotterdam “Tower of Babel” illustrates yet another characteristic of Bruegel's art, an obsessive interest
in rendering movement. It was a problem with which he constantly experimented. In the Rotterdam painting, movement is imparted to an
inanimate object, the tower seeming to be shown in rotation. Even more strikingly, in “The Magpie on the Gallows,”
the gallows apparently take part in the peasants' dance shown next to them. The several paintings of peasant dances (see
photograph) are obvious examples, and others, less obvious, are the processional representations in “The
Way to Calvary” and in “The Conversion of St. Paul.” The latter work also conveys the
sensation of the movement of figures through the constantly changing terrain of mountainous regions. This sensation had appeared
first in the early mountain drawings and later, in different form, in “The Flight into Egypt” (1563). Toward the end of his life, Bruegel seems to have become fascinated by
the problem of the falling figure. His studies reached their apogee in a rendering of successive stages of falling in “The Parable of the Blind.” The perfect unity of form, content,
and expression marks this painting as a high point
in European art.
The subject matter of Bruegel's
compositions covers an impressively wide range. In addition to the landscapes, his repertoire consists of conventional biblical
scenes and parables of Christ, mythological subjects as in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (two versions),
and the illustrations of proverbial sayings in “The Netherlands Proverbs” and several other paintings. His allegorical
compositions are often of a religious character, as the two engraved series of “The Vices” (1556–57) and
“The Virtues” (1559–60), but they included profane social satires as well. The scenes from peasant life
are well known, but a number of subjects that are not easy to classify include “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”
(1559), “Children's Games” (1560), and “Dulle Griet,” also known as “Mad Meg” (1562).
It has recently been shown how
closely many of Bruegel's works mirror the moral and religious ideas of Dirck Coornhert, whose writings on ethics show a rationalistic, commonsense approach. He advocated a Christianity
free from the outward ceremonies of the various denominations, Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran, which he rejected
as irrelevant. In an age of bitter conflicts arising out of religious intolerance, Coornhert pleaded for toleration. Bruegel,
of course, castigated human weakness in a more general way, with avarice and greed as the main targets of his criticism that
was ingeniously expressed in the engraving “The Battle Between the Money Bags and Strong Boxes.” This would have
been in keeping with Coornhert's views as well, which permitted taking part outwardly in the old forms of worship and accepting
the patronage of Cardinal Granvelle.
Bruegel the Elder (1969), is a bibliography. F. Grossmann, Pieter Bruegel: Complete Edition of the Paintings, 3rd
ed. rev. (1973), contains a detailed biography and includes a review of contemporary and later opinions and new interpretations.
Charles de Tolnay, The Drawings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1952), offers a fundamental, critical study of the drawings,
with a catalog. Ludwig Munz, The Drawings (1961), assesses Bruegel's drawing technique, with a catalog differing in
part from de Tolnay's. H. Arthur Klein (ed.), Graphic Worlds of Peter Bruegel the Elder (1963), provides the only survey
in English of the engravings after designs by Bruegel, useful though not based on original research. Walter S. Gibson, Bruegel
(1977); Piero Bianconi, Bruegel (1979); and Bruegel (1984), with text, catalog, and notes by R.H. Marijnissen
and photographs by M. Seidel, summarize the artist's career and review theories about his life and works.