October 1, 1550 - 
Pieter Bruegel

By Fritz Reed

Of all the artists that emerged from the Northern Renaissance, the one that brings to mind this tumultuous, uncertain time has to be Pieter Bruegel. His works often have a chaotic, messy theme with hundreds of little details and people dotted around a broad landscape, reflecting the similarly exciting and cluttered times he lived in.

Born in Breda, the Netherlands in 1525, little or nothing is known about his upbringing, other than that he was most likely from Antwerp. He was taught until Coecke’s death in 1550, by which time Bruegel had begun works outside of his education. His first documented work is some painting on an altarpiece in Mechelen, which is now lost. He joined the Antwerp Painters Guild in 1551, and journeyed to Italy the year after. During this time, he collaborated with another artist, Giulio Clovio, although all of the works created have since been lost. He returned to Antwerp in 1555, at which time a collection of his prints, which were engraved into metal, were published by the most prominent publisher in Northern Europe at the time, Hieronymous Cock. He continued to produce prints for the publisher between 1555 and 1563, at which time he moved to Brussels after he was married. Between 1563 and his death, he produced paintings rather than prints, and fathered two sons that became painters and a daughter, who isn’t commonly known. At the time of his death he ordered his wife to burn many of his drawings, most likely because they would have caused her physical harm, as they were supposedly politically controversial, although the truth is not known. 40 of his works survive today.

Bruegel was born against a backdrop of political, social and religious change, with Martin Luther writing his theses only 8 years before his birth, and with the Northern Renaissance coming into full swing with humanist ideals and the shift from more feudal governments to the monarchies that came afterwards. In this way, he represents many of the painters in the north at this time, as he painted very few religious paintings and instead focused on the lives of peasants and their kind, signifying the shift of how things were in northern Europe  during this tumultuous period. While not always regarded as the most technically skilled painter, he had a way of telling stories in his paintings through the actions the many characters are taking part in. Bruegel is, in my mind, a perfect example of a renaissance man.