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Children's Games
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With over 80 different games being played in Children’s Games, Pieter Bruegel the Elder gave us quite the formidable bout of "I spy."

Let’s play. I spy a conga line. Yes, right there in the top right near the kids playing duck duck goose. I spy kids riding a fence as if it were a railing of a staircase. There, just below the arches of the castle and to the left of the mock wedding. Last one: I spy a kid twirling dung with a stick. She’s in the bottom of the painting and in the middle of the road next to a bunch of other kids. Wait, ew.

Believe it or not, this I spy mechanic might have been a function of the painting. It was popular for refined intellectuals of the sixteenth century to be discerning viewers of detail-rich artworks. They would gather around paintings at parties, presumably with their pinkies raised high while their eyes bounded about the paint trying to find the richest material possible for conversation. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s other paintings, like Netherlandish Proverbs, also showcase this near encyclopedic interest in cramming as much visual information into a single frame as possible. The thought of being a show-off by being able to spot something might seem preposterous to us today, but it sure sounds fun.

For this painting, Bruegel the Elder was most likely influenced by Erasmus, a sixteenth century humanist of the northern renaissance. Erasmus thought that play was an essential part of a proper child’s upbringing, understanding that play and learning were not necessarily separate things. If you look at some of the more scatological games here (if you can even call them that), like the child peeing or that kid stirring poo, they look more like they’re conducting an experiment than having a laugh. These are kids having fun and enjoying their own strange curiosities.

Others have read it as a metaphorically ladened portrait, with every game played having some esoteric social commentary. Such interpretations are anachronisms that don’t take into account what was going on at the time, because this was turning the painting into a 17th century exercise of hiding meanings in emblems. Don’t forget that this is a 16th century painting, critics. Or maybe this is all a game; if so, play on.

 

Sources

Sources

  1. Zagorin, Perez. "Looking for Pieter Bruegel." Journal of the History of Ideas 64, no. 1 (2003): 73-96. doi:10.2307/3654297.
  2. Orrock, Amy. "Homo Ludens: Pieter Bruegel's Children's Games and the Humanist Educators." Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. Accessed January 2019. https://jhna.org/articles/homo-ludens-pieter-bruegels-childrens-games-hu....
  3. Emerton, Ephraim. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2009.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Children's Games (Bruegel)

Children's Games is an oil-on-panel by Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1560. It is currently held and exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Description

This painting, mentioned for the first time by Karel van Mander in 1604, was acquired in 1594 by Archduke Ernest of Austria. It has been suggested that it was the first in a projected series of paintings representing the Ages of Man, in which Children's Games would have stood for Youth. If that was Bruegel's intention, it is unlikely that the series progressed beyond this painting, for there are no contemporary or subsequent mentions of related pictures.

The children, who range in age from toddlers to adolescents, roll hoops, walk on stilts, spin hoops, ride hobby-horses, stage mock tournaments, play leap-frog and blind man's bluff, perform handstands, inflate pigs' bladders and play with dolls and other toys.See details below They have also taken over the large building that dominates the square: it may be a town hall or some other important civic building, in this way emphasizing the moral that the adults who direct civic affairs are as children in the sight of God. This crowded scene is to some extent relieved by the landscape in the top left-hand corner; but even here children are bathing in the river and playing on its banks.

The artist's intention for this work is more serious than simply to compile an illustrated encyclopaedia of children's games, though some eighty particular games have been identified.See details below Bruegel shows the children absorbed in their games with the seriousness displayed by adults in their apparently more important pursuits. His moral is that in the mind of God children's games possess as much significance as the activities of their parents. This idea was a familiar one in contemporary literature: in an anonymous Flemish poem published in Antwerp in 1530 by Jan van Doesborch, mankind is compared to children who are entirely absorbed in their foolish games and concerns.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Children's Games (Bruegel).