PIETER BRUEGEL

 

the Elder


1525 - 1569

 


Peasants, Fools and Demons

 

 
 
   
Renaissance Art Map
 
   
   
Pieter Bruegel the Elder  Peasants, Fools and Demons
 
 
    Introduction
 
   
    A Brief Life in Dangerous Times
 
   
    Antwerp: a Booming City
 
   
    The Holy Family in the Snow
 
   
    Exploring the World
 
   
    Demons in Our Midst
 
   
    Village Life
 
   
    Nature as Man's Environment
 
   
    Not only Peasants
 
   
    Pieter the Droll?
 
   
    Life and Work
     
   
 

 
                          

     


 
 



 

 


Nature as Man's Environment
 

               

 

Bruegel must have been preoccupied with or even disturbed by the rebellion against Nature, the cosmos, God, the motif of hubris, for he treated it again and again. In addition to Saul, we can find King Nimrod with the uncompleted Tower of Babel, the rebellion of the angels against God and their fall, and also the man who foolishly attempts to defend himself with his sword against triumphant Death. Furthermore, it is presumably anything but by chance that the subject of the sole legendary motif from classical antiquity to be found in his ceuvre, namely the fall of Icarus (Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558), is precisely hubris.
The legend relates how Daedalus made a pair of wings for himself and his son, Icarus. He used feathers, thread and wax to do this, and he warned his son not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus, in high spirits, did not heed his father's warning; the wax melted, and Icarus fell into the sea. All that can be seen of him in Bruegel's painting are two legs in the water.
Icarus is often venerated as an explorer attempting to push back the boundaries of knowledge. Bruegel sees him differently, rendering him ridiculous with his helplessly thrashing legs. He has painted the man with his plough, concentrating fully on horse and furrow, larger than Icarus. The best-known version of the Greek legend circulating at the time, a free rendering of Ovid, mentions the farmer, the shepherd depicted by Bruegel, and also the angler, relating how they look up at the two flying humans and "are astonished and think to see gods approaching them through the aether." In the picture, it is only the shepherd who is looking upwards; neither he, nor the farmer, nor the angler, do anything about the drowning boy, however, but continue with their tasks. Even the shepherd remains with his flock. They are "stoics": they obey the laws of the cosmos and leave the lawbreaker to his supposedly just fate.
In concentrating on the people, it is easy to forget that they occupy but a fraction of the painting's surface. They are visually enveloped by a bay with a wood, mountains, a harbour in the distance, and the sun setting on the horizon. Bruegel has unfolded an unrealistic variety and an almost immeasurable expanse. He is demonstrating man's insignificance compared to the "size of the whole world" as quoted by Ortelius.
In order to render spatial depth, Bruegel once again places the observer on an elevated point so that he sees the farmer from diagonally above, the shepherd more side-on, and the ship above the latter frontally. While this may not be quite true to perspective, this technical trick of angular displacement heightens the impression of great distance which the painter was evidently seeking to convey.
Bruegel also occupies an important position in the history of landscape painting on account of his ability to convey to the observer the transformation of nature in the course of the seasons. This was no new subject. The religious texts in the illustrated prayer-books of the nobles in the late Middle Ages were often preceded by a calendar with a page for each month. These pages showed the course of the year, mainly by depicting the respective occupations carried out in the month in question. Thus in January, the feudal lords invite their guests to an opulent banquet; in February, the peasant cuts wood; in March, he tills the soil; in April, young aristocrats celebrate their betrothal in the country; in May, they go horse-riding; and so on. These miniatures are characterized by people. In Bruegel's art, it is always Nature itself which renders the season apparent: like the trees and animals, the people represent merely one part of the broad landscapes spread out before the observer.

 

 


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
c. 1558

Wearing wings held together with wax, Icarus approached too close to the sun; the wax melted, and Icarus fell into the sea. Bruegel makes him look ridiculous, depicting merely his thrashing legs. Through the former, the shepherd and the angler, he is promulgating Stoic ideas: one should not rebel against the laws of the cosmos, but should be content to fulfil one's tasks in the appointed place.

 


Man of War with the Fall of Icarus (detail)

 


Man of War with the Fall of Icarus (detail)

The engravings for which Bruegel produced drawings were always intended for a large clientele. For this reason, they tended to follow the conventions to a greater extent than was the case with his paintings. Icarus was generally portrayed close to the sun, as here, with his father, Daedalus, at a suitable distance below him.

 

 

 


Warship, with Fall of Icarus
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The engravings for which Bruegel produced drawings were always intended for a large clientele. For this reason, they tended to follow the conventions to a greater extent than was the case with his paintings. Icarus was generally portrayed close to the sun, as here, with his father, Daedalus, at a suitable distance below him.

 

  

 

This is especially evident in the painting The Hunters in the Snow (1565). There are no shadows: the sun has set, or is hidden behind unbroken cloud. Snow covers the ground and small plants, while gigantic, ice-coated mountains loom in the background. The picture is dominated by two "cold" colours, the white of the snow and the pale green of the sky and the ice. Every living thing - people, trees, dogs, birds - is dark. This stands in contradiction to the customary colour associations connected with being alive, and heightens the impression of misery and privation. The hunters are bringing only one fox home with them - yet it is not they who communicate to us that it is wintertime but first and foremost Nature, the colours of the sky, the ice, the snow, by means of which Bruegel has characterized this day.

 

 


The Hunters in the Snow
1565

The painting may strike the observer as a natural view of the landscape, but in fact it reveals Bruegel's great artistry in stylization.
The picture is dominated by two "cold" colours, namely the white of the snow and the pale green of the sky and the ice.
People, trees, dogs, birds are all dark or black, thereby contradicting the customary colour associations: winter brings sleep and death.

 

 


The Hunters in the Snow (detail)
1565

 

     

 

      

Jan and Lucas van Doetecum after Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Milites Requiescentes (Soldiers at Rest)
ca. 1555
 

 
 

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