The Artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The patriarch of a famous artistic Renaissance family, Pieter Bruegel, born c. 1525, is frequently considered the best of his brood. Bruegel changed the spelling of his name from Brueghel to Bruegel, unlike the other artists in his family, but his work is unmistakable and his legendary masterpieces are among the most famous paintings in the world.

Believed to be born in the area of the Netherlands, Bruegel lived in a time and place that brewed with tension between Catholic and Protestant factions. Indeed, war would break out in 1557 toward the end of the artist’s life in the area of Flanders where he worked as a master painter in Antwerp, but during his life there was considerable religious turmoil. Yet, despite the religious and mythic subjects he painted, art historians have not conclusively assigned him to a religious faction. Little is known of his personal life except that he married the daughter of a fellow painter and had two sons, Pieter and Jan, who would also paint and father children who would continue the Brueghel artistic dynasty (Bruegel’s children returned the H to their name).

Historians believe Bruegel left his border home in Holland to live in Flanders which was becoming very prosperous. After living for years in Antwerp, the artist moved to Brussels in 1563. He also spent time studying in Rome. To put the artist’s life in context, he was born during the prime of Michelangelo and only a short while after Martin Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church. These two influences would show their effects in the Bruegel’s work. If Michelangelo represents the Italianate Renaissance influence, then it must be owned that Bruegel’s earlier work reflects all the grandeur of such an influence. Consider the Tower of Babel paintings, works that are charged with religious symbolic meaning, yet in a singularly Bruegel style.

But Bruegel’s later work became less stylized and more simple, a style more in keeping with the north where Protestantism was growing. The Blind Leading the Blind is a keen example of the artist’s evolution to a simpler depiction. Bruegel used art to tell a story, often a parable, or to make a point—sometimes a point of protest and sometimes simply to render sixteenth-century life with sharp detail. While Bruegel is naturally treasured for his mastery of the form, he is revered for the humor, albeit dark humor, he sometimes infused in paintings like The Fight between Carnival and Lent.

Some of Bruegel’s work is social commentary like the famed Fall of Icarus where a mythical figure splashes into the bay—a seemingly grand event—but town life appears to continue in its ordinary day paying no mind. Bruegel’s extraordinary body of work is the stuff of legend in any case. Earning himself the nickname “Bruegel the Peasant,” the artist is also much known for his peasant paintings like The Peasant Wedding of 1568. Bruegel died in September 1569. Art Historians have authenticated forty-five Bruegel paintings, most of which reside in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.