The new monograph, Bruegel The Master, published by Thames & Hudson, is a highly engaging tour through Pieter Bruegel The Elder’s print and painting oeuvre. Published in conjunction with the recently concluded exhibition in Vienna, the monograph details Bruegel’s corpus of prints and paintings. Best of all, the monograph includes recent research into Bruegel’s painting techniques undertaken in advance of the Vienna exhibition.
Many Bruegel monographs divide his output by format, with separate sections on his prints and paintings. Bruegel The Master instead weaves both print and paintings together in a roughly chronological review of his output, while delving into the fascinating process undertaken by Bruegel to create his masterpieces. The monograph details Bruegel’s painting techniques, which differed greatly between works. For example, his earlier painted works, such as Children’s Games, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent and Christ Carrying the Cross, have precise, mechanical figure contours, suggesting the transfer of image using a cartoon. In contract, Bruegel’s later works, such as his series of the months (which include The Return of the Heard and The Gloomy Day), have loose and sketchy underdrawings. For these later works, Bruegel’s painting process could only have been possible by preparing a precise conception of the painting prior to beginning his work.
One of the biggest revelations in Bruegel the Master is that many of his paintings were cut down from their original size. Such well-known works as The Suicide of Saul, The Tower of Babel, and The Conversion of Saul are specific examples of works that were altered. The reason for their being cut down remains an intriguing mystery yet to be solved.
The monograph is rife with comparisons, using infrared reflectograms, between the final painting and the preparatory under drawing. This analysis draws the reader into the book and asks them to study the images carefully. For example, a corpse visible in the under drawing of Children’s Games is covered by paint in the final paint layer, as are two children lying on the ground in front of a church, which was also overpainted.
Several works were cleaned in preparation for the exhibit. Some of the cleaning, such as for The Suicide of Saul, is dramatically presented in the book, shown mid-cleaning.
There are five additional essays available online that can be unlocked with a code found in the monograph. These essays take a deeper dive into aspects of Bruegel’s art, including Bruegel’s creative process, his painting materials and techniques, and the history of the works now in Vienna.
It would be nearly impossible for those interested in early Renaissance art history not to be thoroughly engaged by this monograph, as it engages readers in both new historical findings and timeless Bruegelian imagery.
This monograph is an indispensable addition to Bruegel art historical literature.