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Bruegel The Master: A Crucial New Monograph


Master 2

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.

paint layer


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.

Brugel 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.



2 thoughts on “Bruegel The Master: A Crucial New Monograph

  1. Hunting in the Snow.

    “Have you seen the man peeing in the corner?”
    I have been looking at Pieter Bruegel’s great snowy landscape known as Hunters in the Snow (1565). I must have looked at it hundreds of times without noticing this “signature “ – a humorous character relieving himself, to be found in several of his paintings. Bruegel’s pictures are full of surprises – the more you look the more you see!
    I have been immersing myself in a magnificent book, BRUEGEL: The Master. This publication gives a comprehensive account of the work of the Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and the large format allows for the closest scrutiny of the details of his paintings as never before. Also, it displays some of the scientific research using x-rays that has been looking beneath the paint layers to show us how Bruegel designed and developed his pictures from the drawings to the paint layers.
    The large landscapes of the seasons of the year were designed as conversation pieces, so he filled them with very finely painted details in the distance, using skills learned from his mother in law who was a miniaturist. When they were first painted, visitors were encouraged to engage in conversations about these lively scenes and search for meanings in the more enigmatic images.
    So, I was in the process of counting all the birds in the picture of Hunters in the Snow, when I came across the man peeing! And the bird-spotting exercise brought me to some other delights of the picture. Apart from the three hunters in the foreground who have bagged a small fox, there is another in the distance, with a gun. He crouches by the bank of a small, frozen pond to the right, beyond the main skating pool. Look carefully and you will see the red flash of his gun as he aims at three ducks rising – that makes my total count of over thirty birds! It is only when you get the opportunity to look at the original or books like this one, with same-size images, that details like these can be discovered. Very few commentators seem to have noticed this hunter and his gun looking for tastier game!
    Fairly central, and on the bank, there is an old door balanced on a stick set up as a bird trap. The sixteenth century villagers supplemented their pottage with any small wild birds they could catch. It is very similar to the one featured in another Bruegel painting called Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (1565).
    You can tell it had been a long, cold winter in this scene, because the mill wheel, covered in icicles, at the right of the picture, has frozen solid. The little girl at the bottom right is pulling her friend along on a sledge made from a three-legged stool. I know that works because I have one very like it! And the sea too has frozen. Have you found the horse in the far distance galloping across the ice?

    I would like to draw attention to another overlooked image in a Bruegel painting that seems to have been missed by commentators. It is to be found in the middle of The Battle between Carnival and Lent (1559) and so, I believe, was intended to influence our interpretation of it. At the centre of the square you will see a well that is like a wheel-hub to the circling activities of the town: church-going and charitable works on one side leading round to play-acting, drinking and merry-making on the other. No one, in all the books I have consulted, * has commented on the pretty girl at the well, who appears to be taking a drink from a bucket. Why would she do that? Look closely and I believe Bruegel gave her a different and more significant role. He painted the reflection of her face in the water. There is just a hint of colour in the dark but enough to show that the girl is perhaps admiring herself, and enough to hint to us that she stands for the sinful Maid of Vanity. A set of drawings of the Seven Deadly Sins designed by Bruegel in 1558, featured The Sin of Vanity, or Pride, personified as a woman with a mirror.
    When Bruegel was designing his picture for The Battle between Carnival and Lent he may have had in mind a verse from The Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”
    The yearly round of rituals, of processions, dramas, games and works appear like the annual battle of Carnival and Lent and its pointless jousting for position.
    A Carnival character in the bottom left corner, looking very much like the bearded artist himself and with his fingers touching the very signature of Bruegel, is wearing a mirror on his back. He is seen throwing dice and taking a chance with another of the revellers dressed in the mask of Death, thus prompting us, perhaps, to giving another careful look deep into this “mirror of life” and so to reflect on the Preacher’s claim that “all is vanity.”
    Karel van Mander (1548 – 1606) remarked that you couldn’t look at Bruegel’s works without laughing, so even in this thought-provoking Battle between Carnival and Lent you can experience his down-to-earth humour at almost every turn: a fool needs a torch to finds his way in daylight: a group plays a smashing game of catch-the-pot: a man empties a bucket over a drinker: high on a windowsill a scarecrow looks upon these vanities with dumb expression……..and now, see if you can find another “peeing-man!”
    *Just read this that does actually remark on the maid at the well. It details objects and people from the painting Carnival and Lent: Conversation Pieces: The World of Bruegel by Alexandra van Dongen, Abdelkader Benali, et al. Hannibal, 2018.

    Laurence Smith

    Posted by lsmith977 | January 14, 2020, 8:45 am
  2. A further thought after reading about The Two Monkeys in Bruegel The Master.

    Hoping for Freedom?

    What is the meaning of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting of two monkeys chained in an archway?
    A number of different answers have been put forward ranging from the simple recording of exotic animals to allegorical interpretations where monkeys stood for lust, greed and other aspects of human behaviour.(1)
    I agree with Rainald Grosshans who thought that the monkeys represented “the hope of a free life that is inherent in all creatures.”(2)
    Help in solving this debate could be this evidence to be found in a rare woodcut by Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder (1545).(3) His subject was a Christian Virtue that he personified as a woman standing with her attributes in one hand of a beehive and a spade in the other and with a sailing ship on her head. These attributes represented the expectation of wealth that would come from agriculture and trade, because the Virtue’s name was Hope (Spes); she was the hope of wealth. She also represented the hope of freedom. This was suggested by the birds in a cage beneath her feet and for the man in the stocks to her left. Hoping for freedom too, I think, was the sad looking monkey chained to an iron ball and it was Vogtherr’s clear intention.
    Comparing the chained monkey of this woodcut with those monkeys imprisoned in the oil painting makes a strong case for thinking that Bruegel intended that they should stand for the virtue of Hope. In the distance is the outline silhouette of Antwerp, so that by implication, Bruegel was hoping for the freedom of his city too, one that had been feeling the imprisoning domination of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty.

    (1)Manfred Sellink, Two Monkeys. Bruegel The Master. p.158.
    (2), Prestel Verlag / Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Rainald Groschens

    Posted by lsmith977 | March 28, 2020, 5:01 pm

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