Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525/1530 - 1569) is a Brabant painter, draughtsman, etcher and print designer. Despite his fame as an artist, we know precious little about the man himself. A great deal of factual information is lacking for us, such as his precise year of birth, place of birth, information about his education and his residence until 1563. Did he have substantial means and what was his place in society? How was he established in life? These are essential questions that remain unanswered.
It is presumed that Bruegel was born in the Netherlands in Breugel, Breda or possibly in Antwerp, Bree or Brogel around 1525 - 1530. According to the artists' biographer Karel van Mander (Schilder-Boeck, 1604), Bruegel was a student of the multifaceted court painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502 - 1550), who was in control of one of the most important studios of the time in Antwerp. Van Mander explains that Bruegel's youngest son, Jan Bruegel I (1568 - 1625), was schooled in the art of miniatures by Mayken Verhulst, the wife of Pieter Coecke van Aelst. It is not inconceivable that given his talent for detailed work that Bruegel was also initiated into this art form during his stay in the studio.
In 1551 he enters into the Antwerp St Lucas Guild. His earliest surviving drawings appear shortly thereafter. From 1553 to 1554 (possibly already since 1552), Bruegel is present in Italy, where he becomes acquainted with the remains of the classical antiquity and the Renaissance. His landscape drawings originate from this period. Beginning in 1555, landscapes were brought onto the market in print form by the publisher Hieronymus Cock (1518 - 1570). Between 1556 and 1558, the print series The Seven Deadly Sins appears - a milestone in his oeuvre.
Only beginning in 1557 do we see a picture of Bruegel as painter.
Around 1561-1562, the artist designs fewer prints and devotes himself fully to painting. Bruegel moves to Brussels and, by 1563, is certainly settled there. He is married there the same year in the Church of Our Lady of the Chapel (Kapellekerk) to Mayken Coecke (ca. 1545 - 1578), the daughter of his presumed master teacher Pieter Coecke. They have two children that shall become successful painters in their own right: Pieter Bruegel the Younger (1564 - 1638) and Jan Bruegel the Elder. Both were heavily influenced by their father to a large extent. In a short period of time, between 1563 and Bruegel's death in 1569, at least 28 paintings appear.
Pieter Bruegel was a keen painter, but was not the pictor doctus (or learned painter) as some would like to see him being. It is accepted, however, that he did indeed maintain contacts with humanists. In that regard, there is, for example, his friendship with the geographer, artist and humanist Abraham Ortelius (1527 - 1598). Bruegel's intellectual background and developmental environment is complex and layered. He drew inspiration from the culture of the folk and rhetoricians' stage.
Irony, self-mockery and (visual) humour are determining for his imagery.
Here too, the Christian heritage and the humanistic morality also play a role. From the tradition of the allegories, Bruegel vividly presents human shortcomings. We see the unmistakeable influence of Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450 - 1516) that denounced the consequences of sin and debauchery. Ludovico Guicciardini called Bruegel a second Bosch in 1567. Giorgio Vasari, Domenicus Lampsonius and Karel van Mander also echoed this suggestion. According to Van Mander, Bruegel got the nickname of 'Pier den Drol (Pieter the Joker)' because of his predilection for Bosch-like 'spoockerijen en drollen'. Until the end of the 19th century, the image of the 'second Bosch' retained him a place amongst the greatest artists of all time.
For centuries, Bruegel's reception was founded upon the knowledge of his graphics, because his paintings remained in the anonymity of private collections for a long time. Afterwards, there followed a trend towards nationalistic recuperation: Bruegel as a Flemish peasant painter. The image of Bruegel as being a 'pure' Flemish painter is incorrect. One can already refer to the motifs and image types of the peasant and carnival scenes that are drifting over from the German printmaking. Specifically Barthel and Sebald Beham, Hans Weiditz and Jacob Binck were important in that respect. Moreover, people exaggerate terribly when one refers to him in the words of Van Mander as Boerenbruegel (Peasants' Bruegel). In retrospect, there are scarcely but a few iconic peasant scenes known. In Bruegel's surviving paintings, for that matter, more religious stories appear than the thematic of peasants.
In conjunction with that, his anti-Renaissance image in not founded. The Venetian art of painting was determined by its landscape art, a genre in which he excelled and with which he was influential. Moreover, Michelangelo (1475 - 1564), Raphael (1483 - 1520) and Giulio Romano (1499 - 1546), amongst others, were via the Netherlandish artists directly or indirectly important for the greater monumentality in Bruegel's figure types towards the end of his career.
The actual situation of a substantial number of works is not yet satisfactorily explained. Some art historians emphasise all-too one-sided the veiled political, religious and social critique in Bruegel's works. One must consider with this that his patrons were quite often from the governing and financial elite. Proper demonstrable critique is limited to only a few works that were intended for the free market.
Amongst his patrons was Nicolaes Jonghelinck, an Antwerp merchant and art collector. At a given moment Jonghelinck owned sixteen paintings by Bruegel, amongst which were The Tower of Babel (Vienna or Rotterdam), Christ carrying the Cross (presumably Vienna) and the series of paintings The Twelve Months. Furthermore, we know other commissioners like the Antwerp master of coins Jean Noirot (owned five Bruegels), the humanist and geographer Abraham Ortelius, who owned the grisaille Death of Mary, and Cardinal Antoine Perrenot Granvelle, Archbishop of Mechelen and advisor to the court in Brussels.
Pieter Bruegel was especially ingenious both with regards to form and content. His visual sources are diverse and numerous, but were never carried out as being clichéd.
The influential Bruegel was a shrewd observer of the condition humaine, which he processed with his outstanding technical abilities in a personal manner. Human beings and their actions and the pastoral world that surrounded them form the essence of Bruegel's art.