In This Article Pieter Bruegel the Elder

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Milestones in the Bruegel Literature
  • Attributions and Technical Examinations
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Bosch and Bruegel
  • Bruegel’s Landscapes
  • Bruegel and Popular Culture
  • Bruegel as a Learned Artist
  • Bruegel and Italy
  • Early Collectors
  • Bruegel’s Sons

Renaissance and Reformation Pieter Bruegel the Elder
by
Nina Serebrennikov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0017

Introduction

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (b. c. 1526–d. 1569) is arguably the least-documented artist of stature in 16th-century Europe. We are not certain where or when he was born or how he was educated. No correspondence has been passed down to us, and very little is known about his various commissions. Why he left the thriving city of Antwerp for the smaller and more staid Brussels can only be conjectured. We do know that he painted relatively traditional subject matter—Boschian fantasies, the peasants at work and play, and biblical narratives—for wealthy patrons, and we are certain that he executed those panels considerably more skillfully than his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. The earliest sources were ambivalent when trying to explain his art. Writing a short four decades after the artist’s death, Karel van Mander reported that Bruegel would often pretend to be a peasant in order to participate in fairs and rustic ceremonies so he could watch the participants eat, drink, and dance and then reproduce those antics in paint. Yet van Mander adds that there was concealed meaning in these compositions; the magpie perched on the gallows, for example, stood for gossiping tongues. In the 20th century the literature on this artist was characterized by that polarity between Bruegel the painter of peasant customs and Bruegel the learned artist who imbued his works with allegorical significance. Subsequently, however, instead of trying to determine what Bruegel may have intended, many scholars are reconstructing how his audiences may have interpreted his art, a topic that is broader and at least marginally better documented.

General Overviews

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the accepted oeuvre has been sharply reduced. Bruegel scholarship has of course followed that reevaluation. Primarily for that reason, the focus here is on recent publications. Jürgen Müller’s bibliography in Meadow 1996 lists numerous older texts. Gibson 1985 is a widely consulted and often assigned text, while Roberts-Jones and Roberts-Jones 2002 is more comprehensive and with far better reproductions. Seipel 1998 also includes excellent reproductions but is limited to the holdings in the Vienna Museum. The remaining works are more specialized. Würtenberger 1957 covers the often overlooked importance of German art for Bruegel, while Francastel 1995 provides sensitive formal analyses. Silver 2006 situates the protean Bruegel in the context of several competing genres, providing a wider perspective than is the norm. Kavaler 1999 fleshes out the circle of merchants that were Bruegel’s primary patrons, providing one of the earlier sustained studies of the reception of his art. The majority of the essays in Von Simson and Winner 1979 take Bruegel’s intention as a starting point.

  • Francastel, Pierre. Bruegel. Paris: Editions Hazan, 1995.

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    In French. Francastel finished this manuscript in 1969, shortly before he died. This 1995 edition is the first publication and is admittedly out-of-date. But Francastel rejected both the reigning positivist tradition and the Hegelian disembodied spirit that Charles De Tolnay represented. While his dialectical approach no longer seems viable, his formal analyses are among the best written.

  • Gibson, Walter S. Bruegel. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

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    First published in 1977. While obviously somewhat dated, this book is still an excellent introduction to the artist and his oeuvre. Suitable for undergraduates, especially as background reading for a seminar.

  • Kavaler, Ethan Matt. Pieter Bruegel: Parables of Order and Enterprise. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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    The author situates the reception of Bruegel’s compositions in the circle of wealthy merchants who patronized this artist. At the same time he sees in these works evidence of a socially conservative perspective, one that is suspicious of the emerging capitalist economy and the self-interest that characterizes it.

  • Meadow, Mark, ed. Special Issue: Pieter Bruegel. Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 47 (1996).

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    Eleven authors contributed to this issue. The essays by Larry A. Silver, Ethan Matt Kavaler, and Meadow have been expanded in later publications. Bart Ramakers as well as Vinken and Schlüter (both in Dutch) study rederijker culture and Bruegel; Härting (in German) places Bruegel’s Caritas in context; Gregory associates Bruegel’s Procession to Calvary with shifting hermeneutic practices; Walter S. Melion and Nina Eugenia Serebrennikov look at the Nachleben of Bruegel’s compositions. Jürgen Müller contributed an extensive bibliography.

  • Roberts-Jones, Philippe, and Françoise Roberts-Jones. Pieter Bruegel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.

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    Translation of Pierre Bruegel l’Ancien (Paris: Flammarion, 1997). The approach is primarily iconographic. Also includes useful sections on the artist’s technique, especially in the paintings in the Brussels museum. The translation is clumsy, rendering the authors’ meaning opaque in places. Excellent reproductions.

  • Seipel, Wilfried, ed. Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Milan: Skira, 1998.

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    Detailed discussion of the twelve paintings in the museum by Klaus Demus, longtime curator there. An excellent introduction for the layperson or undergraduate with superb color details. Translation of the German edition; also published in French and Italian. The bibliography is occasionally cumbersome, since foreign periodical titles are rendered in English.

  • Silver, Larry. Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    The author traces the emergence of several genres—landscapes, commercial images, kitchen and market scenes, the peasant at labor and leisure, and the wildly popular Boschian imagery. All but one of these chapters conclude with a discussion of Bruegel’s contribution to the genre followed by an overview of his legacy in the northern and southern Netherlands.

  • Von Simson, Otto, and Matthias Winner, ed. Pieter Bruegel und seine Welt. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1979.

    E-mail Citation »

    A colloquium occasioned by the 1975 Berlin exhibition (see Winner and Anzelewsky 1975, cited under Exhibition Catalogues). By far the most influential contribution is Justus Müller Hofstede’s, where the author refutes Charles De Tolnay’s pantheistic interpretation of Bruegel’s oeuvre and, on the basis of his friendship with Abraham Ortelius, attributes to him a Stoic worldview, as evidenced by his landscapes. Winner’s contribution on Bruegel’s Alchemist is useful for iconographic context. Most essays are in German.

  • Würtenberger, Franzsepp. Pieter Bruegel d. Ä. und die deutsche Kunst. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1957.

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    This is the only sustained discussion of the importance of German art for Bruegel. Some of the connections the author makes are not only speculative but also questionable; nevertheless, this text still provides a useful introduction to an understudied body of images (especially the Kleinmeisters) that were important to the artist. Mediocre reproductions.

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