the Elder

1525 - 1569


Peasants, Fools and Demons


Renaissance Art Map
Pieter Bruegel the Elder  Peasants, Fools and Demons
    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






Exploring the World



Warship Seen Half from Left
The Netherlanders possessed one of the largest merchant fleets, and mercantile initiative led to the reconnaissance of distant lands. Bruegel took great pains with his technically exact depictions of ships.

Mediaeval paintings primarily depicted biblical figures, the saints, Heaven and Hell. Such works, most of them in churches and monasteries, were meant to show the faithful what they could not see with their own eyes. They thus served a devotional and didactic purpose.
In the Renaissance (which began in Italy some 100 years before Bruegel's birth), the focus of attention turned to man. The mediaeval concept of Earth, as a vale of tears filled with wretched sinners, faded. The status of man was enhanced; painters showed that he possessed a body, and placed him - with the aid of perspective - in a three-dimensional earthly environment. Reality was studied not only by the artists but also - even more so - by empirical scientists. The first circumnavigation of the world, undertaken by Magellan, had proved in 1521 that the Earth was round; in 1548, Pierre Coudenberg had laid out a Botanical Gardens in Brussels for the purpose of studying exotic plants, one of many such study gardens in this century; in 1560, the Church lifted its ban on the dissection of corpses, releasing the human body for examination; and in 1570, Abraham Ortelius published the first atlas of the world.
The Antwerp geographer Ortelius was a friend of Bruegel. Thanks to this man and others, the painter was familiar with the exploratory enthusiasm of his century. He too explored, after his own manner, presenting in his works areas of life previously neglected or even held in contempt. One rather peculiar example of this is the picture Children's Games (1560).
The subject of childhood had hitherto been virtually ignored in western painting and thought. Childhood was not viewed as a phase of life with any requirements of its own, but merely as the preliminary stage to adulthood. Children were treated as little adults, as the clothing portrayed in Bruegel's picture indicates: the girls' aprons and bonnets resembled those of their mothers, while the boys' trousers, jerkins and jackets echoed those worn by their fathers. Moreover, there were hardly any toys: only tops, hobby-horses, dolls, and windmills on long sticks. Most of Bruegel's children are managing without toys or making do with pigs' bladders, knucklebones, caps, barrels, hoops - such things, in other words, as could be found simply lying about.
Emotional affection was probably slight in comparison with that exhibited by parents and relations in the nuclear families of today. It was simply a matter of too many children being born, and too many dying in early childhood. Something of this lack of interest, this absence of any deep feeling, is conveyed in Bruegel's picture. The childlike element is stressed neither in the faces nor in the physique of the children. Some of them seem dull and rather stupid, all of them ageless. There is no trace of the idealizing manner with which children would be portrayed in the pictures of the centuries to come.
Bruegel has depicted more than 250 children here. Such a catalogue of games, such an enumeration of children's methods for exercising the body and preparing for the adult world through imitation, is without parallel in the history of art.



The Ass in the School

The population of the Netherlands provinces had a high level of education - indeed, an Italian traveller even ventured the opinion that everyone could read and write. Bruegel is laughing at his countrymen's eagerness to learn: the caption comments that "An ass will never become a horse, even if he goes to school."




 This picture can, however, be seen differently: not as a folkloristic inventory, but as a warning to adults not to fritter their life away as if it were a childlike game. One factor supporting this second interpretation is the absence of childlike elements in the faces of most of the children. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, however. If this picture is of interest for us today, then it is not because of its possible moral or innovative technique, but Bruegel's skilled mastery of colour and form. The work fascinates, yet it also disturbs, for reasons both of content and of form. There is no ideal vantage point from which the picture should be viewed, for example. The observer is required simultaneously to come close up to the work and to remain at a certain remove from it: only at a distance can he maintain the necessary overall view, yet only in close-up do the many little activities, figures and faces really come to life. The perspective causes additional problems; we customarily take up a position in front of the centre of a picture, assuming that the painter is showing us his world from this position. Bruegel does not. To follow the perspective, one would have to adopt a position in front of the right-hand half of the painting. Here the walls of the building meet in an equiangular manner in the long street, the painter drawing the observer's gaze upwards. Although the perspective leads the eye to the right, the picture does not "tip over". The edge of the houses leads diagonally down towards the left and forwards. The buildings at the left-hand edge of the picture, their dark mass making them especially prominent, create a balance, and also a relationship between foreground and background that is charged with tension. Bruegel places his children play in a complex space; he fascinates us through artistic means, without our being immediately aware of what holds us for so long in front of this picture.



Children's Games

Bruegel has portrayed over 250 children on this panel. They are playing with pieces of wood, with bones, with hoops and barrels -specially crafted toys were rare in the 16th century. Their faces often appear ageless: perhaps the painter wished to warn the observer against frittering away his life as if it were a childlike game.



Children's Games (detail)


Children's Games (detail)




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