Jenny Farrell discusses the life and work of 'Peasant Bruegel', unearthing the radically subversive protests and criticisms of political domination which are expressed so beautifully in his paintings
The greatest of the 16th century Dutch realists is without doubt Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Born around 1525, Bruegel died 450 years ago, on 9 September 1569. His lifetime coincides with the Netherland’s struggle against Spanish domination. The Netherlands, which at that time included the territory of the present Netherlands as well as Belgium, Luxembourg and part of northern France, belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and was dominated by the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs. Into Bruegel’s lifetime fall: an escalation of the Inquisition, the persecution of Protestants, and Calvinist iconoclasm.
Bruegel was the first of a large family of painters. He became known as “Peasant Bruegel” due to one of the main features of his work, the centrality of the Dutch peasantry. However, his art reflects Dutch reality in many more ways. Not only did it draw inspiration from popular expressions and proverbs and put the people of the Netherlands at its centre, his paintings for that very reason contain many hidden attacks on Spanish imperial domination. In this way, works such as The Procession to Calvary, Census at Bethlehem, The Massacre of the Innocent and many others, sometimes cloaked in religious guise, helped to prepare the Dutch Revolution by putting on canvas the realities of life for ordinary people, and thereby supporting the Dutch quest for independence:
The Procession to Calvary – detail
In this painting, Jesus is wearing the same blue clothes as the peasants, who are coming to his aid, both women and men. The red-coated mercenaries, all on horseback, are clearly depicted as their common enemy.
Census at Bethlehem
Domination of the Dutch peasantry by the Spanish oppressor is also very apparent in the two paintings Census at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocents. Both are set in freezing landscapes. Both carry a political comment about the Dutch/Flemish under this Habsburg branch of the Holy Roman Empire. In Census at Bethlehem, the people clearly suffer from the financial and military yoke of the foreign power. They queue to register, and to pay taxes to the Empire. Tellingly, the tax collectors sit next to the Habsburg coat of arms (a black eagle on a golden shield), painted on the wall beside the window. Mary and Joseph are shown heading towards the tax collectors. They too are depicted as Dutch people in subjugation.
Hunters in the Snow
Bruegel’s sequence on the seasons have their roots in the book of hours, but they have come a long way. These paintings mastered seasonal atmospheric values of nature for the first time, and organically integrated the ordinary working people into the landscape. In his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow, the hunters and their dogs return from work. They are bent over with tiredness, on their way home to the village. In this painting, Bruegel’s training as a miniature artist is spectacularly clear in the amount of life going on in the distance. The viewer sees the expansive landscape through the hunters’ eyes, following their footsteps across the snow-covered ridge. Villagers skate, a woman crosses a bridge carrying brushwood. Even a chimney fire can be detected in the village’s farthest cottage, with villagers working hard to extinguish it. An icy cold wind blows towards the observer, and one senses the shelter that the huts offer their inhabitants.
The Wedding Dance
Bruegel celebrated the rich traditions of Dutch culture, highlighting the threat to it posed by the Spanish ruling class. Most famous of all are of Bruegel’s depictions of peasant life, as for example The Wedding Dance. This very this-worldly picture would have been frowned upon by the Church, as it disapproved of dancing and any obvious sensuality and joy-in-life. At this picture’s centre we see the joined hands of bride and groom dancing in the open air. The bride is the only woman without a white scarf and a working woman’s apron, her red hair is loose, and she is wearing a black dress (white dresses only became fashionable in the 19th century). The entire village is invited and it is a joyous community occasion. The dynamic movement within the picture is stunning, expressing the people's enormous energy, and one can almost hear the bagpipe music. Aside from the dancing, there is sexual freedom among the villagers too. The bagpipe itself is a sexual symbol, apart from it being a folk music instrument. The unrestrained enjoyment of life, the energy, the dancing, music and sexual freedom are all a clear statement of resistance to the attempt by the Spanish ruling class at political and religious control of the Dutch people.
Big Fish Eats Small Fish
Bruegel also produced more directly socially critical allegorical works such as Big Fish Eats Small Fish or the not so allegorical pair The Rich Kitchen and The Poor Kitchen. These are still enjoyable, recognisable and true to this day:
The Rich Kitchen and The Poor Kitchen.
Bruegel captured his time, from the point of view of subjugated people in his country, and he did it in a remarkably realistic and humane way. His art represents the early stages, the progressive, indeed revolutionary, element of bourgeois realism. For this reason, viewers today can easily understand and identify with Bruegel’s partisanship with the ordinary, exploited and oppressed folk, and their rebellion against their condition.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.