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






Pieter the Droll?



David Vinckeboons
Allegory of Robbery (detail),
undated Vinckeboons (1576 - after 1632) has done a variation upon the theme of robbing a nest which Bruegel treated in one of his later paintings: instead of one spectator, there are two here, one of whom is also being robbed.

Almost all the 45 or so paintings experts now attribute to Pieter Bruegel the Elder were executed in the 12 years between 1556 and 1568. Bruegel was a good 40 years old when he died; it is impossible to say what else he would have painted, what further development his art would have undergone...
Many of his later pictures reveal his growing interest in single figures. Where we previously saw a multitude of small forms embedded in an expansive landscape, we now encounter individual large-scale figures, to whom the background is subordinated. One such picture is The Parable of the Blind; another is The Peasant and the Birdnester (1568). Bruegel has depicted a boy hanging from a branch while engaged in the attempt to steal the eggs from a bird's-nest, and a peasant pointing to the boy. The painting illustrates a proverb challenging one to take action: "He who knows where the nest is, knows it; he who takes it, has it." It is not the active person, the man of deeds, whom Bruegel has placed in the foreground, however, but the pensive man, perhaps rather unworldly, who, looking upwards into the distance, has not noticed that he is about to fall forwards into the water. Bruegel has painted him three times as large as the birdnester and placed him along the vertical middle axis, thereby giving him so much significance that he dominates the picture. Furthermore, by positioning him almost on the lower border of the picture, he has moved him into a position of direct proximity to the observer. The clumsy body has acquired additional weight through the artist's painting it in a blocklike manner. This huge figure with a curious expression on his face almost seems to be tumbling out of the picture towards the observer.
Yet the proverb of the birdnester will have served Bruegel at most as an incentive; he was primarily preoccupied with something quite different, namely the artistic problem of depicting a human body about to lose its balance. He had already shown considerable interest in the act of falling in The Parable of the Blind , portraying it in six phases seen from side-on. In The Peasant and the Birdnester, he depicts the initial stage of the fall head-on, adding to the forwards movement by means of the arm crooked backwards over the man's shoulder and thus - if we include the man's gaze - combining three directions in one single body: forwards, backwards, upwards. Everything else in the picture is necessarily subordinated to such a dynamic central field. Bruegel has kept the landscape flat; the eye can relax on the thatch-covered roofs of the houses in the background.



The Peasant and the Birdnester

It is not the birdnester whom Bruegel has placed in the foreground but the pensive man, who, his head slightly raised, has not noticed that he is about to fall into the brook. Bruegel will presumably have been interested less in the proverb than in the body of the young man, who is on the point of losing his balance and will fall forwards. In The Parable of the Blind, from the same year, the artist presents the observer with a side-on view of the different stages of falling.
This painting was probably inspired by a proverb distinguishing between active and passive people: ''He who knows where the nest is, knows it; he who takes it, has it." The detail shows the nest robber, the active person; boldly and without a moment's hesitation, he has climbed up the tree.




Other artists, mainly south of the Alps, were also working on the portrayal of complicated movements by this time; they had broken away from the rather static Renaissance standards of beauty and are commonly described as Mannerists. However, their great gestures, their floating, twisted figures, were still beautiful or spiritualized forms. Despite shared interests with Bruegel, the difference between their work and his is unmistakable.
The late works with large-scale figures include The Cripples (1568) and The Misanthrope (1568). An old man in a dark habit, whose purse is being stolen by a ragged figure in a glass globe, feels himself hard done by and deceived. At the bottom are the words: "Since the world is so unfaithful, I am in mourning." Thorns lie in his way; he is about to tread on them. Bruegel leaves the question open as to whether we are looking here at someone pursued by misfortune or at a wealthy man who favours the outward appearance of an unfortunate.
It may well be that the painter's contemporaries laughed amusedly over such a deceiver deceived or over the birdnester and the sky-gazer. At any rate, van Mander comments that Bruegel painted many "humorous scenes", and that this led to his being nicknamed "Pieter the Droll" by a considerable number of people. Van Mander continues: "There are few works by his hand which the observer can look upon and thereby keep a straight face.. ," A straight face in the case of only a few works? Van Mander is presumably referring primarily to the pictures of peasants, for the peasant was fundamentally presented in contemporary literature and on stage as a stupid figure, uneducated, clumsy, quick to resort to violence - in short, a figure causing amusement. Those observers with this cliche, of the peasant in their heads and with no eye for the serious side of Bruegel's portrayals will perhaps indeed have found something "droll" about the dancing, eating, working countryfolk, their tendency to dress, attend to their appearance, and move in a different way to that customary in urban circles.
As well as this one public, prone to laughter, there was another, however, one represented by Bruegel's friend Abraham Ortelius. the famous geographer. Ortelius wrote that Bruegel had "painted much that simply could not be painted. All of the works by our Bruegel always imply more than they depict." In formulating his opinion in this way, Ortelius was presumably referring to Stoic thought as it may be identified in Bruegel's work, the concept of a universe in which each person should accept his predestined place. However, Ortelius equally praises Bruegel for having refrained from refining and prettifying people, expressing himself (translated from the Latin) as follows: 'Those painters who, painting graceful creatures in the prime of life, seek to superimpose on the painted subject some further element of charm or elegance sprung from their free imagination disfigure the entire portrayed creation, are untrue to their model, and thereby deviate to an equal extent from true beauty. Our Bruegel is free from this fault."




The Misanthrope

A ragged figure in a glass globe is cutting the purse strings of an old man wearing a dark habit. Under the picture are the words: "Since the world is so unfaithful, I am in mourning." The question remains open whether it is the world which is deceiving the old man or vice versa. A shepherd is watching over his flock in the background; he is not complaining but is content to accept his fate, as the Stoics recommend.




The Misanthrope




Storm at Sea (1568) is one of Bruegel's last paintings. It is unfinished and, like so many of his works, defies unambiguous interpretation. On the one hand, we see ships threatened by a storm - man not as master of Nature, in other words, but as its victim. On the other hand, the sailors have poured oil onto the water to calm the sea, and have sacrificed a barrel from their cargo to distract the mighty whale. Yet the barrel could be interpreted in a similar way to the nutshells in the picture of the Two Monkeys: in each case, animals - meaning mankind - allow themselves to be distracted by something of little importance, instead of pursuing that which really matters. A comparison of this work with the earlier painting of a View of Naples (c. 1558), recalling Bruegel's journey to Italy, underlines the overpowering manner in which he has depicted the sea and the force of Nature here.



Storm at Sea

One of the vessels has poured oil overboard in order to calm the sea; another has thrown a barrel over the side in hopes of distracting a gigantic whale. Both attempts by the crews to save themselves appear in vain in the light of the waves and clouds: man is powerless compared with the forces of nature.



View of Naples
c. 1558

A comparison of Storm at Sea from 1568 with a commemorative picture of a journey to Italy, painted roughly a decade earlier, clearly reveals the extent to which Bruegel's artistic interests had meanwhile developed. Even if a sea battle is raging before Naples, the extensive landscape and the protective circle of the harbour communicate a sense of order and security.




Frans Huys after Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Four-Master and Two Three-Masters Anchored near a Fortified Island with a Lighthouse
ca. 1561



View of Antwerp from the sea


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