Pieter Bruegel was an expert draughtsman and graphic designer. The work that he produced in this media is of great importance for the appreciation of his oeuvre. Because a great deal of his paintings remained in anonymity for a long time in private collections, the reception of his work was based for a long time on the knowledge of his graphic work.
In the oeuvre catalogue of Manfred Sellink (Bruegel. The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Ludion 2011), the corpus of work includes 63 drawings. This is no small number if you know that Jan van Eyck (ca. 1385/90 - 1441) has only one single drawing that is generally accepted to bear his name.
Thematically the corpus is globally seen as falling into two groups: the landscapes and the allegorical drawings.
As a draughtsman, Bruegel first appears in 1552 with five landscapes. Afterwards, the artist departs for Italy. He shall stay there at least from 1553 to 1554. Around twenty landscape drawings from this period have been preserved. From only a few drawings one presumes that Bruegel drew them in situ. His style points towards the influences from the Netherlands as well as from Italy, and specifically from Venice. The loose pen strokes and parallel hatching indicate the influence of Titian (ca. 1485/90 - 1576) and Domenico Campagnola (1500 - 1564). Also characteristic for his early period is the less precisely rendered background. What remains are the little leaves from trees in the form of a lying number three. What distinguishes Bruegel from his Italian colleagues is the attention to detail, inter alia. The recording of miniature people, animals and props indicate his affinity with the art of miniature painting.
In later drawings, such as The Summer (1568, Print Room, Kunsthalle, Hamburg) or The Beekeepers (ca. 1568, Print Room, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) one perceives the influence of Michelangelo's monumental figures. Both drawings are remarkable for the thought-out composition and the precise and refined manner of drawing.
More or less the half of the preserved drawings serves as preparatory drawings for prints. A portion of them embrace Hieronymus Bosch's tributary thematic and another part is rather realistic and narratively constructed. Antwerp became an important centre of the print and book publishing art beginning in the middle of the sixteenth century. There was a high demand for prints and Bruegel happily took advantage of that. His compositions enjoyed a strong distribution in this way. His most important publisher was Hieronymus Cock (1518 - 1570). With his Antwerp publishing house, In de vier winden, he is of inestimable value for Bruegel's career. Such a printing business with a publisher as an entrepreneur commanded a network of (freelance) colleagues: designers, copywriters, engravers and printers. The rationalisation of the production process ensured for circulation numbers never known before. Cock had the financial means, took care of the promotion and distribution and determined the course of the publishing house. He also had a hand in the choice of the themes that appeared in print.
Bruegel makes the design drawings for the prints, which subsequently are completed by specialised print artists. There is one single etching by the hand of the artist that is known: The Hare Hunt, from which the design drawing is also preserved. (Institut Néerlandais, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris) Judging from the one print, one can conclude that a talented etcher was lost on Bruegel not doing more. The print is precisely etched and appears very lifelike. The precision and the refinement do not go hand in hand in the medium of engraving, so as to ensure that Bruegel must make very rigidly delineated design drawings. About the tonality of the landscape in The Hare Hunt, this can also be noted. His drawing style differs here as well completely from the free, atmospheric landscape drawings. The design drawings serve a specific goal: precisely and linear executed, so that the engraver can literally copy it. Pieter van der Heyden is the most important engraver of Bruegel's works. The style of the prints differs according to the technique of the engraver. Van der Heyden faithfully copies Bruegel, while someone such as Philips Galle (1537 - 1612) deviates much freer and inventively with the example. Bruegel's most ambitious print, both with respect to format and technique, is Battle in the Straits of Messina.
Some prints appear posthumously printed by Hieronymus Cock and after his death by his widow Volcxken Diercx and Philips Galle. Only the print, The Wedding of Mopsus and Nisa, is directly drawn by Bruegel on a wooden block that is only partially cut out. After Bruegel's death, Van der Heyden makes a copper engraving of it. The other posthumous prints are reproductions of paintings, grisailles and drawings. In general, these engravings cannot compare to the quality of the collaboration between Cock and Bruegel from the years 1550 - 1560.