Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Rockstar painter and (unknowingly) painter of album covers for rockstars
Clayton Schuster


Trivium Art History

Featured Contributor

Pieter Bruegel the Elder loved to party.

He's basically the 16th century Flemish artist equivalent of The Wedding Crashers. The only thing he loved more than partying was painting other people partying.

Like Wilson and Vaughn, Bruegel had an alter ego for carousing. He dressed up as a peasant, then found whatever local barn raising or wedding or christening, or whatever, was going on that day and left his problems at the manor. Some clarification of 'dressed up as a peasant' is necessary because he came from old money. Suffice it to say that he wouldn't need a loan for art school, and he wouldn't be living in the dorms unless he wanted to (he would want to). He was cavorting as a peasant so often that he gained the nickname Peasant Bruegel. That probably isn't a strain of nicknames someone could get away with today. "Hey everyone, Poverty Susan is coming to our party!" Despite crashing peasant soirees for inspiration and focusing a plurality of works on the minutiae of their festivities, most of his patrons were scholars and wealthy businessmen. Not to be too harsh...but that kind of makes Peasant Bruegel a sell-out. 

Another favorite subject of his, though you'd never expect it, was The Spanish Inquisition. Bruegel wasn't a fan. The Spanish were running amok throughout the Low Countries, putting good God-fearing folk to the dish rack left and right for not believing in God properly. However, the Inquisition didn't even try censoring OR censuring Bruegel. It seemed he was untouchable. It probably didn't hurt, though, that his most fervent patrons were the Habsburgs in Vienna (which is why a full third of his extant works are available for viewing in Austria instead of Belgium or The Netherlands). The Habsburgs were also the family on the throne in Spain, instigating the Inquisition. This leaves open the question of whether The Spanish Inquisition was really just a ploy by the Habsburgs to push Bruegel toward greater artistic success for their own enrichment. The only answer seems to be DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER.

Peasant Bruegel is also the progenitor and unquestionably best painter of an artistic dynasty stretching four generations. It all started when Bruegel married his teacher's daughter, Mayken. Their sons, Pieter Bruegel the Younger and Jan Bruegel the Elder, would go on to achieve recognition through their own painting careers. However, with their father dead by the time they were young children, Pete Sr's influence on the brats is minimal. They were taught by Mayken's mother, famous for her tempera works and, also, an established artist. Whenever the boys asked about their father, it's easy to imagine Mayken tearing up, staring into the distance and saying, "History will remember him... for his keg stands."

Here is what Trivium says about Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A Religious Painter

Pieter Bruegel painted in the midst of a cultural tornado that swept Western Europe in the 1500’s. The power of the Catholic church was eroded by the humanism and intellectualism that spread from Italy’s High Renaissance and the new Protestant reformation.

Bruegel’s early work was an almost perfect mirror of the demonological themes that Heironymus Bosch had pioneered and had become wildly popular throughout the Netherlands. Birds-eye views of battles between angels and fish-faced demons — Bruegel was following the religious obsession of his culture.

A Student of Humanity 

But in 1565, when Bruegel was 40 years old, he found a new focus. After traveling to Italy, Antwerp, and finally settling in Brussels, Bruegel decided to paint people. Perhaps influenced by the growth of ‘heretical’ Calvinism, or simply the maturing of a successful artist, Bruegel began to dress as a peasant, and socialize at rural weddings and festivals. His work changed dramatically, with a new focus on the seasons, and the honest toil of the working classes.

Bruegel was the first in a dynasty of Flemish painters, and is one of the clearest examples of the evolving role of an artist — from a conduit of religious dogma, to an independent interpreter of culture. His sons Peiter and Jan Bruegel would take up the brush after him, though they were still young when their father died, and their work would always lack the refinement and pragmatic worldview of their father’s final works.

Learn more about Pieter Bruegel the Elder and other artists at Trivium Art History

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is mentioned on Sartle Blog -