The Fall of Icarus

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Event Preview – “The Bruegel Success Story,” 12-14 September 2018

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We were fortunate enough to obtain an exclusive preview of the upcoming event, “The Bruegel Success Story,” to be held 12-14 September 2018 in Brussels, Belgium.  ( This can’t-miss conference kicks off a number of activities celebrating the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who died 450 years ago.  We corresponded with one of the conference organizers, Dr. Christina Currie, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), who gave us this exciting preview of the conference:

1) What led to focusing on Bruegel and his family for this conference?

The year 2019 is the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death. In Belgium and in Vienna, this is being marked by a series of events that will celebrate his career and his influence on later generations. The Bruegel Success Story conference, organised by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in collaboration with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium, will kick off this season of activities and will give a riveting context for all the subsequent Bruegel themed happenings.

2) What will attendees of the conference learn?

Attendees will be exposed to the very latest in Bruegel research through the eyes of experts from all around the world. Eminent keynote speakers Leen Huet (Belgium), Elizabeth Honig (USA) and Matt Kavaler (Canada) will introduce each of the three days. Over the course of the conference, presentations will cover the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder as well as that of his artistic progeny, including the astonishingly exact replicas of his paintings produced by his elder son Pieter Brueghel the Younger and the exquisite paintings of his younger son Jan Brueghel the Elder. Fascinating new findings on the creative process of Bruegel the Elder as well as that of his dynasty will be presented for the first time, thanks to new high resolution scientific imagery. But the conference does not neglect the essential meaning behind these beautiful works of art. Several speakers will concentrate specifically on the interpretation of Bruegel’s paintings and drawings, which can be quite subversive when seen in an historical context. Interesting new facts about the life, family and homes of the Bruegel family will also be revealed.

3) Who should attend this conference?

The Bruegel Success Story is intended for all art lovers with an interest in Flemish painting and particularly those attracted to Bruegelian themes such as peasant dances, landscapes, proverbs and maniacal scenes. Students of art history, art historians, restorers and collectors should not pass up this opportunity.

3) There are a number of papers focusing on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Dulle Griet.” Why is that painting receiving attention now?

The Dulle Griet, in the collection of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp, has just undergone the most thorough conservation treatment in its recent history. This has brought to light many original features that were previously hidden behind a murky brown varnish and overpaint. The restoration, carried out at the Royal Institute for Cultural Institute in Brussels, was accompanied by in-depth technical examination that resulted in fascinating discoveries about Bruegel the Elder’s creative process. The conference attendees will hear how this great artist conceived, developed and painted this bizarre macabre composition. Leen Huet, one of the keynote speakers and author of a sensational recent biography on Bruegel the Elder, will delve into the hidden meaning behind the Dulle Griet.

4) One of the biggest bombshells in recent years was the revelation in your book (“The Brueg(h)el Phenomenon”) that Bruegel the Elder’s two versions of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” were not painted by Bruegel the Elder. Will there be similar surprises unveiled at the conference?

I can say that attributions will be debated during the conference. This is always the case when a group of experts on a particular artist or dynasty get together. And it can lead to sparks flying as opinions naturally diverge!

5) There has also been a good deal of investigation into Bruegel’s extended family lately.  What will attendees learn about Bruegel’s family at the conference?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings were so loved that his son and heir Pieter Brueghel the Younger made his entire career out of producing replicas for an insatiable art market in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Jan Brueghel, his younger brother, updated the family tradition, branching out into flower paintings, allegories and mythological themes. The next generation produced several renowned painters too, including Abraham Brueghel, who traded on the family name. The paintings of the Bruegel dynasty, as well as those of lesser-known artists working in the Bruegel tradition in the Low Countries and abroad, will feature amongst the exciting new material presented during the conference.

Is “The Mill and the Cross” Historically Accurate?

"The Mill and the Cross"

At last I was able to travel to a theater showing Lech Majewski’s “The Mill and the Cross.”  Bringing to vivid life the 1564 painting “Procession On The Way to Calvary,” from the Kunsthistorische Muesum in Vienna, the film ostensibly allows us into the mind of Bruegel as he prepares to paint the work.

There are many fine reviews of the film that you can find on the web.  (I’ve including a few links at the end of this post.)  Because of this, I’ll focus my review on the historical accuracy of the film based on what we know of Bruegel and his patron, Nicolaas Jongelinck.

However, first let me say that I greatly enjoyed the film.  (How can someone with a blog about Bruegel not find something to like in what is likely the first portrayal of Bruegel on the silver screen?)  While it is impossible to know Bruegel’s thoughts while he was composing this painting, “The Mill and the Cross” offers one possible scenario. I found the film less compelling when it focused on Mary and Jesus.  The story of the crucifixion has been told countless times on the screen, and I found little that was fresh in this retelling.

– The costumes were very well done and closely mirrored those in the painting, as well as clothes that can be found in other Bruegel paintings.

– While I enjoyed Rutger Hauer’s performance, he is too old to portray Bruegel in 1569, when Bruegel was approximately 35 years old.  During the scenes of Bruegel and his wife Mayken Coecke van Aelst, I was pulled out of the film due to the jarring differences of their age and the fact that this does not match the historical record.

– Nicolaas Jongelinck, portrayed by Michael York, was shown in his house in a bustling city (presumably  Antwerp) in the film.  We know that Jongelinck’s residence in Antwerp was not in the city.  Nicolaas’ house, called “‘t Goet ter Beke,” was located just outside the gates of Antwerp  It was built by his brother Thomas, and was trasfered to Nicolaas on 22nd November 1554 (1). (It is possible that Jongelinck had another residence in the city, but there is no record of this.)

– The filmmaker did correctly portray Jongelinck owning a “Tower of Babel” painting by Bruegel, which can be seen in the background of several scenes set in Jongelinck’s house.  We don’t know if it was the exact painting shown in the film, since Bruegel painted at least two versions of the “Tower of Babel.”  The painting shown in the film is housed in the Kunsthistorische Muesum.

– Bruegel had 6 children, 5 boys and 1 girl, in the film.  This could be possible if Bruegel had 4 children that did not live into adulthood, since we know that Pieter II and Jan survived him.  However, there is no documented evidence regarding the number of Bruegel’s children that did not survive.

While there were some lapses of historical accuracy, the film is an entirely enjoyable exploration of the painting and of Bruegel’s time as we understand it today.  We hope that it serves to introduce Bruegel to a new audience of viewers, who will then seek to learn more about the man and his painting.

(1) “The Labours of Hercules, a Lost Series of Paintings by Frans Floris,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 107, 1965, PP 114 – 123.

Further reading / reviews of “The Mill and the Cross”

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus

Big news in the Bruegel-sphere this week with new evidence that the famous “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is indeed not by Bruegel the Elder.  The soon to be released publication, The Brueg(H)el phenomenon, from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA) in Brussels, written by Christina Currie and  Dominique Allart, puts forward evidence that the painting was painted near the year 1600, decades after Bruegel’s death.

For years scholars have been postulating that this work was not characteristic of Bruegel’s works in several key areas.  Manfred Sellink, for example, in his magnificent 2007 monograph “Bruegel: The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints,” reviews the history of the attribution question.

The painting has always looked “off” to me.  While it was the first Bruegel picture that captured my attention as a 17 year-old student all those year ago, each subsequent viewing of the painting indicated that something was not quite right about it.  The most problematic aspect of the painting for me rests in the depiction of the peasant and his horse.  The figures do not have the typical heft of Bruegel’s figures.  Something about the man and the horse give the impression that they could almost lift off the painting and float into the sky.

The painting is one of the most famous of Bruegel’s works, with W. H. Auden writing an oft-quoted poem about the work.

We look forward to learning more about Currie and Allart’s findings with the release of their research early next year.

Further information here: