Pieter Bruegel the Elder is largely responsible for the creation of Flanders’ national psyche and collective consciousness as hard working yet bon vivant. In Flanders, you can still find the beautiful landscapes, picturesque villages and the ‘joie de vivre’ that Bruegel painted so beautifully. But Flanders and the works of Bruegel are much more than that. 2019 is the time to find out just how much more there is to be discovered about Bruegel. Flanders will celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Master’s death with all the honours he deserves : an impressive series of exhibitions and events will showcase what an exceptional artist he was.
While very little is know about the life of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, much can be deduced by studying his paintings and by looking back at the times he lived in. He was a highly inventive artist, who profoundly influenced the imaginations and perceptions of succeeding generations
The enigma of Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The reality is we know very little about his life with certainty, and 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. 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. This leads us to conclude that he probably served his apprenticeship with the master craftsman and well-known tapestry designer, architect and sculptor, Pieter Coecke van Aelst between 1545 and 1550. It was perhaps during this apprenticeship that Coecke’s wife, Mayken Verhulst, might have trained him as a manuscript illuminator.
The guild of Saint Luke
Membership of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp will certainly have exposed Bruegel to the influence of the local Romanists for whom travel to Italy and appreciation of classical and humanist culture were essential. And so it is no surprise to find that he travelled to Italy around 1552 where he is known to have met the miniaturist Giulio Clovio when in Rome, for three paintings by him were listed in the latter’s will of 1578. Sadly none of these works have survived.
Around 1554 Bruegel returned to Antwerp, probably by way of the Alps. This journey resulted in a number of exquisite mountain landscape drawings. These sketches, which formed the basis for many of his later paintings, were not records of actual places but “composites” made in order to study the organic life of forms in nature.
An artist by trade
From the mid-16th century onwards, Bruegel began to be more professionally active. By 1552, he had established his first contacts with the print publisher Hieronymus Cock and it is from this epoch that we have his earliest surviving drawings which can still be seen today: the collection of Bruegel’s graphic production which is kept by the Royal Library of Belgium, ranks as among the richest worldwide. It is also home to a collection of about 90 rare high-quality prints as well as three master drawings by Bruegel himself.
It is understood that, on his return from Italy, Bruegel began to concentrate more on painting. To our knowledge, around 40 oeuvres of his survive, and while they are now scattered worldwide, four of them can be seen in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, while the iconic painting ‘The Dulle Griet’ (Mad Meg) can be viewed in the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp. This museum also owns the 12 hand-painted wooden plates by Bruegel, each depicting a well-known proverb.
Family life in Brussels
In 1563, Bruegel moved to Brussels to be closer to the centre of money, power and potential clients. It was a hub for artists and the new urban nobility. In the same year, he married Mayken Coecke, daughter of Pieter Coecke and Mayken Verhulst, in Brussels’ Notre-Dame de la Chapelle Church, and lived nearby. This area was a particularly pros- perous neighbourhood in the 16th-century and not far from Charles V’s main residence at the Coudenberg Palace at Mont des Arts.
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.