Who was Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Many of Pieter Bruegel’s paintings are familiar: his winter scenes and, often witty, depictions of peasant life have adorned the packaging of biscuit tins and chocolate boxes, particularly in the festive season.

2019 was the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525/30 – 1569).

Arguably, Bruegel was the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century. His artistic evolution can be traced from the early landscapes, in which he shows affinity with the Flemish 16th-century landscape tradition, to his last works, which are Italianate.

Pieter Bruegel was born sometime between 1526 and 1530 near Breda in the Low Countries, and spent his childhood there.

In 1551, Bruegel was accepted into the Antwerp painters’ guild. As the average age of guild members was between 21 and 25, we can surmise that Bruegel was born between 1526 and 1530, most likely around 1527/28.

Edme de Boulonois. Portrait of Pieter Bruegel. 1682. engraving.

‘Bruegel‘, ‘Brueghel‘, ‘Breugel‘ or ‘Breughel‘?

In Dutch his name is Pieter Bruegel De Oudere or Boeren Bruegel; Bruegel is also spelled Brueghel or Breughel. The patriarch is called ’Bruegel’ without an ’h’. His sons and grandsons are called ’Brueghel’ with an ’h’. Pieter Bruegel the Elder did not begin to spell his name without an ‘h’ until 1559.

Bruegel was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a leading Antwerp artist living in Brussels. The head of a large workshop, Coecke was a sculptor, architect, and designer of tapestry and stained glass who had travelled in Italy and in Turkey.

Pieter lived with his maidservant in Antwerp. She is said to have ’lied’ to him (whatever that means), so that in 1563 he married the daughter of his teacher Pieter Coecke van Aelst.

Pieter Bruegel and Mayken Coecke van Alst had two sons who also became painters: Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). He exerted a strong influence on painting in the Low Countries, and through his sons Jan and Pieter he became the ancestor of a dynasty of painters that survived into the 18th century.

Bruegel’s mother-in-law Mayken Verhulst (1518-1599) was a painter in her own right, renowned throughout the Low Counties. She was best known as a miniaturist known for her work in watercolour or tempera, a technique later employed by Bruegel.

In 1551 Bruegel was employed in the workshop of Claude Dorizi, an artist and art dealer based in Mechelen. Here he collaborated on an altarpiece with Pieter Baltens. Though the work is lost today, descriptions state that Baltens worked on the central panel of the altarpiece, while Bruegel painted the local saints Rombout and Gomarius on the wings.

Jan Breughel with his second wife and their eldest children by Rubens; Courtauld Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Soon after, in 1551 or 1552 Bruegel set off on the customary northern artist’s journey to Italy. From several paintings, drawings, and etchings, it can be deduced that he travelled beyond Naples to Sicily, possibly as far as Palermo, and that in 1553 he lived for some time in Rome.

Christus und die Apostel am See Genezareth (Bruegel 1553)

It was in Rome in 1553 that Bruegel produced his earliest signed and dated painting, Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias.

The landscapes resulting from this journey are almost without parallel in European art for their rendering of the overpowering grandeur of the high mountains. Very few of the drawings were done on the spot, and several were done after Bruegel’s return to Antwerp. The vast majority are free compositions, combinations of motifs sketched on the journey through the Alps.

In 1554 Bruegel returned to Antwerp, and worked with Hiëronymus Cock, an engraver and Antwerp’s foremost publisher of prints, but from 1556 on he concentrated on satirical, didactic, and moralizing subjects, often in the fantastic or grotesque manner of Hiëronymus Bosch, imitations of whose works were very popular at the time. Bruegel’s early fame rested on prints published by Cock after such designs. But the new subject matter and the interest in the human figure did not lead to the abandonment of landscape. Bruegel in fact extended his explorations in this field. Side by side with his mountain compositions, he began to draw the woods of the countryside; he turned then to Flemish villages and, in 1562, to townscapes with the towers and gates of Amsterdam.

Nearing the end of the decade and his time in Antwerp, Bruegel began to further develop his vernacular style with paintings such as Children’s Games (1560) which portrayed Flemish custom and folklore.

In 1562 Bruegel moved to Brussels to marry Mayken Coecke (a year later) where Mayken and her mother were living.. Here Bruegel produced his greatest paintings but only few designs for engravings, for the connection with Hiëronymus Cock become less close after Bruegel left Antwerp

Another reason for the concentration on painting may have been his growing success in this field. Among his patrons was Antoine Perrenot Cardinal de Granvelle, president of the council of state in the Netherlands. Another patron was Abraham Ortelius, who in a memorable obituary called Bruegel the most perfect artist of the century.

Bruegel died in 1569 and was buried in Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels.

In addition to a great many drawings and engravings by Bruegel, 45 authenticated paintings from a much larger output now lost have been preserved. Of this number, about a third are concentrated in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, reflecting the keen interest of the Habsburg princes in the 16th and 17th centuries in Bruegel’s art.


Britannica, WikiPedia, Brueghel Family Tree, pieterbruegel.org, pieterbruegel.net

For an amazing detailed look at Bruegel’s work, see: insidebruegel.net