The Bruegel saga

Last Updated 25 May 2013, 16:34 IST

Flemish painter Pieter Brugel The Elder was fascinated with the peasants, their droll behaviour, how they ate, drank, danced and made love, Giridhar Khasnis writes

A forthcoming Sotheby’s auction of ‘Old Master Paintings’ — scheduled to be held on June 6 in New York — promises to present works from a range of schools throughout Europe: from Early Northern and Italian paintings to masterpieces from the 18th century.

At the top of 117 lots are two works by Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Younger whose “Spring” (oil on panel/ 41.9 x 57.2 cm) is estimated at $700,000 to $900,000, while “The Whitsun Bride” (oil on panel/ 46.3 x 75.4 cm.) is expected to sell for $400,000 and $600,000.

Earlier this year, at another Sotheby’s auction in New York, a lively painting by the same artist titled “The Seven Acts of Mercy” (oil on panel/ 42.2 x 56.2 cm) sold for a whopping $2,210,500. Taken from Matthew 25:35-6, and based on a work by his father, Breughel the Younger had built-in a setting of 16th century village square near Antwerp to render seven acts of mercy, which Christians were obliged to perform: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to visit and ransom the captive (prisoners); to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; and to bury the dead. At the same Sotheby’s auction, Breughel’s “The Village Lawyer’s Office” (oil on panel/ 75 x 124.5 cm./ 1,626) was expected to fetch $350,000 to $450,000. The painting, which showed a chaotic scene of anxious citizens and waiting peasants in a lawyer’s office, however, overshot its estimate by selling for $722,500. In July last year, Sotheby’s auction in London saw “The Battle between Carnival and Lent” by Pieter Breughel the Younger realise £45,21,250.

In early October 2008, The Guardian newspaper ran a story about a small round painting of two peasants, which was bought by a lady in 1959 in a Dutch flea market for 100 guilders (equivalent of £560). She took it to experts on the Dutch TV show Between Art and Kitsch, who immediately recognised the importance of the signed, 16cm-wide picture of a farmer and his wife resting next to a tree. They authenticated the work, identified the painter to be Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and valued it at €80,000 to €100,000 (£63,000 to £79,000)!

Father & son

Pieter Breughel the Younger was a fine artist, but not recognised for originality. He was primarily known to be a copyist of his father’s paintings. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) was, on the other hand, an extraordinary draughtsman, painter and engraver, who produced evocative landscapes as well as energetic and sympathetic works of Flemish commoners. Since a number of his paintings depicted the everyday life of peasants and ordinary people, he earned the nickname ‘Peasant Bruegel’.

It is said that the painter often went out into the country to see the peasants at their fairs, weddings and such other occasions. Disguising himself as a peasant, he would even bring gifts like the other guests, and claim kinship with the bride or groom. “Bruegel delighted in observing their droll behaviour, how they ate, drank, danced, capered or made love,” wrote one of his contemporaries. “He represented (them) as they really were, betraying their boorishness in the way they walked, talked, danced, stood still or moved.”

Man of the masses

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s works are universal in their appeal and have stood the test of time. They have inspired many artists and writers, and are talked about to this day. The amazingly skilful compositions look comical and amusing but are full of meaning. The artist’s technique of filling the pictures with masses of small figures is striking, as is his facility to carefully draw individual figures, and capture meticulously each and every one of their movements and gestures.

Among his famous works are “Wedding Dance in the Open Air” (1566), “Netherlandish Proverbs” (1559), “The Wedding Feast” (1568), “The Fall of Icarus” (1558-66), “The Haymakers” (1565) and “The Peasant Dance” (1568). In these works, Bruegel the Elder offers glimpses of the topsy-turvy nature of the world, while delineating absurd activities of villagers during festivities and rituals.

These paintings have elicited very divergent readings: from the comical to humane perception of peasant life; from detached and accurate depictions to graphic allegories; from literary allusions to satirical commentaries of crudity, gluttony, lechery and religious neglect. Several commentators feel that there is no other 16th-century artist, whose works have been understood in such different and opposite ways.

According to scholar Jacob Wisse, Bruegel’s works demonstrate the artist’s attentive eye for detail and attest to his direct observation of village settings, but they are far from simple recreations of everyday life; the powerful compositions, brilliantly organised and controlled, reflect a sophisticated artistic design.

“Bruegel’s use of landscape also defies easy interpretation, and demonstrates perhaps the artist’s greatest innovation,” observes Wisse, in his article for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. “Bruegel was able to separate his landscapes from long-standing iconographic tradition, and achieve a contemporary and palpable vision of the natural world. Though rooted in the legacy of calendar scenes, Bruegel’s emphasis is not on the labours that mark each season but on the atmosphere and transformation of the landscape itself. These panoramic compositions suggest an insightful and universal vision of the world — a vision that distinguishes all the work of their remarkable creator, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.”

On recognition

Although Bruegel was highly regarded by the intellectual and political elite of his day, and his pictures were sought by the richest in the land (including kings, queens, and bankers) his life has remained a mystery with very few details being available for researchers. Some feel that he was a gifted, humorous peasant, but others see him as a satirist, political commentator and even a mystic.

Charles de Tolnay (1899-1958) who was the Conservator of the Casa Buonarotti in Florence avers that Bruegel was anything but a simple peasant. “He belonged to a circle of Northern Renaissance humanists and men of the highest level of education, international renown and profound philosophical insight.”

Bruegel the Elder died in 1569 at a relatively young age of 44, leaving behind his wife and two toddlers, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1636) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). Both the children grew up to become artists, and even their sons became painters. None of them, however, could reach the heights of Bruegel the Elder in terms of subtlety and humanism in painting.

(Published 25 May 2013, 16:33 IST)

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