Bruegel statue

Two early sources suggest that Bruegel was most likely born between the years of 1525 and 1530 for it is recorded that he became a free master in the Guild of St Luke, Antwerp in 1551. The reality is that we know very little about his life with certainty. This makes him a truly enigmatic figure. He was obviously fascinated by nature, humanity and humour, and therefore doesn’t quite fit the mould as this or that ‘type’ of artist.

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

Having spent his earlier years in obscurity, Bruegel stepped 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.

After a brief stint in Italy, Bruegel eventually moved to Brussels. It was a hub for artists and the new urban nobility. There 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 in the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels is a perfect example of Bruegel's masterly talent, and well worth a closer look. The painting foresaw the imminent upheaval of the Eighty Years’ War, which tore apart the Low Countries and forever changed the society Bruegel had so keenly observed.

Bruegel died in 1569 and is buried in the same church in which he married, the Notre-Dame de la Chapelle, near the Sablon in Brussels. Both of Bruegel’s sons, Pieter (the Younger) and Jan (the Elder), born in 1564 and 1568 respectively, became notable artists in their own right.

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