Big Fish Eat Little Fish
Production date
Object number

brush and pen in gray and black

30.7 cm x 21.6 cm

Little is known about Pieter Brueghel’s birth and early life. He probably trained under Pieter Coecke van Aelst. After becoming a member of the Antwerp painter’s guild (1551/52), he traveled to Italy, resuming his work for the publisher Hieronymus Cock when he returned to Antwerp in 1555. During the many years of their collaboration, Brueghel produced nearly forty models for copper engravings—landscapes, seascapes, religious scenes, and worldly allegories—that were widely distributed abroad as well. Most of his paintings, to which he owes the sobriquet “Peasant Brueghel,” were first painted after 1560. Brueghel settled in Brussels in 1563, where he married Mayke, the daughter of Pieter Coecke van Aelst I. With the exception of his two sons, Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Elder did not have any students, and yet he greatly influenced generations of painters until well into the seventeenth century.
One of his most famous drawings is the 1556 allegory Big Fish Eat Little Fish, which was engraved in copper by Pieter van der Heyden in 1558. Hieronymus Bosch, who was still very famous forty years after his death in 1516, is named as the inventor of the composition on the mirror-inverted print. It is possible that Brueghel in fact based his drawing on an unknown model by his much-admired predecessor.
In the foreground of the picture, a father and son sit in a rowboat and watch a small fish being pulled from the slashed belly of a larger fish. The father is reminded of a Dutch proverb, which, however, is quoted only on the engraving: “Look, son, I have long known that the big fish eat the small.” He gestures instructively at an enormous animal lying on the shore from whose mouth and slashed belly a large number of smaller fish and other marine animals ooze out, including some that, in turn, have fish in their mouths. The entire representation, even the sky, is inundated with depictions of fish and fantastic fish-like creatures. Remarkable aspects of this drawing include the richly nuanced effects on the various surfaces—for example, the reflections on the water and the shimmering skin of the large fish. From the (in part later strengthened) contours to the fine dashes and dots, everything would be transferred meticulously to the printing plate. (Marian Bisanz-Prakken, 2013) 

Other artworks of this artist

The Painter and the Buyer
Desidia (Sloth)
The Descent of Christ into Limbo
The Last Judgment
Big Fish Eat Little Fish
Village Outside the Walls of a Fortress
Landscape with a fortified town
Mountain Landscape with River and Travellers
Bears in a forest
Avaritia (Avarice)
Dulle Griet
Twelve Proverbs
The Magpie on the Gallows
The Gooseherd