Few Can Beat Old Bruegel

Nobody puts a world in a picture like Pieter Bruegel. Look at this winter scene.

Pieter Bruegel’s Return of the Hunters (Wikimedia public domain photo)

You are alive in 1565. You lived in old Flanders on a sad day when the sun never came out. You saw the day close and the tired hunters come trudging home through the snow. Even their dogs were pooped.

The wind blows right through you. You were a child and you shivered by the fire your mother had started for supper. Those damn magpies glide so easily down to the the plain. They never mind the cold.

Or you were a kid skating on the pond, all bundled up in wool, or a guy collecting firewood or peeing in a corner by the frozen mill.

Remember what the old houses looked like? That’s them. And the roads and the trees. You saw them, you knew them. Bruegel’s winter has been everyone’s WINTER for four hundred and fifty years.

Brueghel is always a surprise and a mystery.  Take two of his Epiphany paintings:

The Adoration of the Magi by Pieter Bruegel, in the National Gallery of London (public domain photo)

Who else would put such ugly humanity into a picture of this great event?
What a congregation of mean, stupid people! The rude soldiers look as though they have collected for an arrest or a Crucifixion and are disappointed. Except for the crossbowman with a bolt in his hat (the way a carpenter keeps his pencil): he has gone soft on seeing the Infant and Mother.

The two men on the right are just curious bystanders. God only knows what they will go home and tell their wives.
Hearty St. Joseph loves a good meal. What is that servant whispering to him? Presumably it isn’t bad news, such as that the owner of the stable would like him and his family to leave.

Why did Bruegel make the Kings ugly too, except for the beautiful black Balthassar, who holds one of the most original gold ships there ever was? It is worthy of Benvenuto Cellini.

They say Bruegel took the Virgin’s pose from Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. And so he probably did, though unless they point out the similarity you won’t think of it.

Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna (photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Here is another Three Kings picture.

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel in the Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland (public domain photo)

They have arrived on a snowy day in old Belgium. No fanfare, no angels, no haloes, no star. The Virgin and Child are almost out of the picture, in that nearly roofless ruin on the left. A fine place to sit and receive a visit.

Everyone is fighting the cold, the wind, and the snow. How they do that seems to be the real subject of the picture. Soldiers have started a fire in a ruin next to the manger. Other soldiers are headed for the shelter of that big farmhouse (or inn). Peasants are scavenging firewood and cutting branches off a fallen tree. Men and women are fetching water from a hole in the ice of a pond. Only the little girl on the sled is enjoying herself and her mother tells her not to.

On the right of the picture, balancing off the manger, is a makeshift toilet and some of the Kings’ soldiers seem to be hurrying there while their lords go adoring to the left.

That’s Bruegel.

Bruegel self-portrait (public domain photo)

There is simply nobody like him.



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9 Responses to Few Can Beat Old Bruegel

  1. wrjones says:

    It does bring back memories of being cold. I grew up in a place that got very cold in winter. I can remember one morning standing by a wood burning stove with only the part of your body nearest the stove getting warm. You would stand awhile then turn around to warm the other half.

  2. Ion Danu says:

    I don’t know why but for me this painting (did I tell you I consider it one of the BEST paintings EVER?!) does not bring up bad feelings or memories… On the contrary… I remember the days of my childhood (a very happy and free one… I had/have good parents, was the only child and they did not pampered me… I was free, winter as well as summer, to go outside and play… and there were plenty of friends aroung…) and all the skiing and skating etc. But I think Bruegel succeded here a perfectly balanced painting, so perfect, so TRUE – in drawing, in color, in composition – that I cannot find an equivalent in my mind for it… and I did see some paintings… Thanks, G!

  3. 100swallows says:

    To Danu: Did you ever paint a winter scene, Danu, with all the kids playing? Or maybe sketch them? Didn’t you find a snowy landscape hard to paint?

  4. cantueso says:

    And why does it say “to hell with art talk”?
    It’s a pity you could not get a better close-up, to see the little people better. Did you look on the net?

    As to Danu: In a winter landscape it is difficult to put in red. It would have to be “Tomato learning how to ski”.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Cantueso: Of course the things I mentioned were part of “art” but only the story part, the little anecdotes. I gave up before talking about the colors and, particularly, about the deep perspective and how Brueghel marked each of the planes with figures to show you distance–the more formal part of picture construction and beauty–the kind of considerations art critics love to write about. I should have left out that last line.

  6. 100swallows says:

    What about you, Bill? Did you ever try one of those Iowa plains with snow? Maybe you did one of your fragment views and put in a red sled.

  7. 100swallows says:

    You must have been a tougher kid than I was. I was brought up to be a baby. The coldest I remember was stepping off the hot-air register of our house to run to school in the morning.

    I could never understand the cat, how he was always creeping after comfort but then could give it up too with a grin. Standing there on the register in the morning before going out into the cold was the nicest feeling in the world. Yet I saw that the cold afterwards was MUCH COLDER than if I hadn’t warmed myself first. The lesson was: do NOT step onto that register in the first place unless you want the BAD along with the GOOD.

    My hot-air register lesson was about how pleasure makes pain. But the most famous example in Plato is the other way round: how pain makes pleasure.
    Socrates is in jail waiting to be executed. The jailer takes off his shackles (footcuffs) and tells him to get ready to drink his poison—today he dies. Socrates’ friends, who went to the jail early that morning to be with him, start to break up and wail, but Socrates seems to have forgotten about his execution and marvels at how good his legs feel now. “Isn’t that something!” he says, rubbing them. “And they only feel good because they were bothered for so long by those shackles. Without that pain, I’d never have noticed my legs at all, would I? That is the way with pleasure and pain. They are two sides of the same thing—they go together.”

    And he thought neither one of them does us much good and ought to be avoided as far as possible. We should try to keep as even as we can—no big ups and no big downs. Of course to him happiness was discovering Truth (philosophy means “love of wisdom”) and he thought our body actually gets in the way of that search because it constantly distorts our perception. That’s why he didn’t mind dying. He was sure his spirit would finally be free then and find the Truth he’d been looking for all his life.

  8. wrjones says:

    My understanding is that many who suffer from bipolar disorder don’t like to take the medication that will keep them more toward the “middle” as it removes the highs of the manic part of the cycle. Some would argue that life is more enjoyable if you feel the extremes.

    Personally I strive for middle of the road for the pain part only.

  9. 100swallows says:

    Strive, strive.

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