The Harvesters - Pieter Bruegel the Elder - © Public Domain

With an oeuvre that has inspired everything from local beers and folk fests to internationally celebrated films and poetry (and even the Rolling Stones), Pieter Bruegel has long moved from our collective consciousness into the world heritage of art.

Flemish primitive, universal paradigm: The paintings of Pieter Bruegel

Dutch Proverbs - Pieter Bruegel the Elder - © Public Domain

Ask anyone in Flanders to list three artists who have adorned the walls of our Hall of Painterly Fame, and the name “Pieter Bruegel” will crop up repeatedly.

Show them pictures of Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding, The Seven Deadly Sins, The Tower of Babel, or The Hunters in the Snow and they will say, without hesitation, “Oh yes, that’s a Bruegel.”

With an oeuvre that has inspired everything from local beers and folk fests to internationally celebrated films and poetry (and even the Rolling Stones), Pieter Bruegel has long moved from our collective consciousness into the world heritage of art.

Bruegel 101

An exemplar of the Flemish Renaissance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1520–1569) is best known for his idiosyncratic landscapes and allegories, rooted in folklore and biblical or classical tradition. Having spent his earlier years in obscurity, Bruegel stepped out into the limelight after settling in Antwerp, then a hotbed of the European revival of scholarship and art. Here, he trained as a painter and printmaker before joining the ranks of the Guild of Saint Luke, a club of master artists whose illustrious roll call reads like a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Flemish painting - Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Memling, and Bruegel’s two sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel.

The Parable of the Blind - Pieter Bruegel the Elder - © Public Domain

The collections in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) boast numerous Bruegels and Brueghels (only 45 of the father’s original paintings are left in the world) and often showcase lesser known sketches or pictures from privately owned collections. Local highlights include the hellish Mad Meg and the homely The Dance of the Bride, known as 'The Wedding Dance', a rustic scene whose signature style and subject matter have since become synonymous with “Peasant Bruegel”, a nickname that nods to the artist’s unique affinity with - and mesmerising depiction of - 16th-century peasant life.

After a brief stint in Italy, Bruegel eventually moved to Brussels, where he continued to churn out masterpieces in his iconic style: powerfully authentic yet highly symbolic, deeply embedded in local tradition but always universal in meaning and scope, and consistently popular in spite of Bruegel’s tongue-in-cheek iconoclasm, which is often reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap and the brilliant Fall of Icarus in the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels are perfect examples of this, and well worth a closer look. Both paintings, in their own ways, foreshadow the imminent upset of the Eighty Years’ War, which tore apart the Low Countries and forever changed the society Bruegel had so keenly observed.

Winter landscape with skaters and bird-traps - © Public Domain

Exploring Bruegel land

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - ca. 1565 (self portrait)

Antwerp’s KMSKA (Royal Museum of Fine Arts) might be closed for renovations until 2018, but lovers of Bruegel need not despair. Working in collaboration with the Municipal Museum in Lier, KMSKA’s curators have mounted an annual rotation of themed exhibitions entitled “Bruegel Land”, which presents the best of Bruegel in different settings. Voorland, curator of the 2014–2015 edition, “Hoge Horizon, 21st Century”, pit Bruegel the Elder against a host of contemporary artists and performers, exploring the painter’s enduring legacy and groundbreaking perspective. Until March 2015, visitors are treated to exhibitions, lectures, concerts, workshops and numerous tie-ins that canvass 50 classic paintings from the collection of KMSKA. A must for Bruegel buffs and anyone interested in pieces of art that have remained as fresh and spellbinding as the day they were painted, some 500 years ago.

Click here to read more about the new Bruegel exhibition in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels.

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