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March 02, 2004

Spending Time in Bruegelville


I think I’ve mentioned before that the older I get, the more landscape painting seems to satisfy my emotional ‘art needs.’ Well, the other day I was looking through a book on Pieter Bruegel, the 16th century painter from what is now Belgium, and it struck me that perhaps I’ve underestimated landscape drawing as well.

Bruegel is of course a one-of-a-kind type of guy, who doesn’t fit easily into categories: he was by turns a history painter, a satirist, an illustrator of proverbs, a depictor of peasant life (without himself being a peasant), a fantasist in the manner of Bosch, a designer of etchings and engravings, and a landscape painter. (Bruegel was a rough contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and seems to have shared with him a cultural mindset combining acute social observation with a vigorous fantasy life.)

Bruegel was also the master of a particular style of pen and ink drawing in which every line, stipple, cross-hatch, dot and hook creates an astonishingly atmospheric rendering. It is as though the light shimmers and the air moves between every stroke of his pen. Of course, his pen is also perfectly capable of creating monumental figures, solid tree trunks, and sturdy tools and buildings as well. (Creating is, of course, the operative word here; these drawings are by no means a ‘tame delineation of a particular place’ and appear to spring chiefly from Bruegel’s imagination.)

To show you an example, here is a detail from a drawing he made for a series of engravings on the Seasons.

P. Bruegel, Spring (detail), 1565

The figures are remarkable, but my eye takes off for the far reaches of space, pausing briefly on the lover’s party on the banks of the river, formed with incredible economy from a few strokes of the pen (and obviously inspiring Ruben’s “The Garden of Love” of the next century.)

Another example is “A Landscape with St. Jerome” (the little saint is visible at the base of the tree kneeling in prayer.)

P. Bruegel, Landscape with St. Jerome, 1553

But what I focus on increasingly these days are the half-hinted-at distances behind:

These drawings, for reasons only known to my subconscious, or to God, make me muse on my mortality, but in a pleasant kind of way. It’s becoming clearer to me that in a few more decades I’ll be leaving, er, this place. Looking at these drawings, I fantasize that when when I do, I’ll head out into the kind of vibratory, tremulous distances that Bruegel’s pen renders so well. It looks like a nice place to, well, dissolve into the mist and the light and the air.



posted by Friedrich at March 2, 2004


"Vibratory, tremulous" -- that's good!

Amazing stuff, thanks. I've been playing more and more recently -- is this middle age speaking -- with the idea of art as trigger (for my subjective experience). I think I tend to prefer art that serves as trigger more than art that attempts in and of itself to be a complete experience. That's just a taste thing, and me, and of no importance. But I think the distinction is kind of intriguing. I hadn't thought of Brueghel as a trigger kind of guy, but I see your point.

In what spirit were these drawings made, by the way? As preparation for paintings or etchings? As completed works unto themselves? I'm less familiar with the market for drawings at that time than I should be.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 2, 2004 10:32 AM

"Spring" was clearly a preparatory drawing for an engraving; it was part of a series on the topic of the seasons. (You may recall that Bruegel also painted such a series--the celebrated image of "Winter" with its tired hunters returning to the village while people skate below is one of that series.)

I'm not certain about the landscape picture; I wonder if he had created it and then inserted the little figure of the Saint to enable it to be engraved also. (Gotta make a living.)

Given the Romantic idea of the tortured artist, it is rather interesting to note that Bruegel's work was both popular during his lifetime and has never gone out of fashion in the succeeding 400+ years. I guess sometimes going your own way pays off big time.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2004 10:41 AM

Nice to have an actual market to work for too. I wonder how much art Brueghel would have been able to get finished if there'd been no market for etchings, paintings, etc -- if he'd been doing it just for the love of doing it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 2, 2004 10:49 AM

This may be a pedestrian observation, but, for me, one of the things that makes these drawings so appealing is their sepia tone.
Of course, they have to be good drawings in the first place. But if you go to an exhibit of 15th - 19th century drawings, many of them have a charm that derives, in part, from their warm brown tone.

Posted by: ricpic on March 2, 2004 12:50 PM

side note: In high school I had a teacher who used Breugal's painting of Icarus falling into the sea with the poem by Auden about it "Musee de Beaux Artes", I think. It was the very first time I actually that art can have more meaning than the objects drawn in it--It was such an epiphany. Thanks for reminding me of it all these long years later.

Posted by: Deb on March 2, 2004 01:18 PM

Late, as always. (Or, may be it shows similarity btw our thinking processes? Hmm, you wish -to self)

Anyway, "Winter" immediately came to my mind, too. But mostly by association with it's appearance in original 'Solyaris' movie, by Tarkovsky, from where it acquired a cult following (in my circle, in long gone time and place). Probably because of the same context given to the painting in the film, as what Friedrich describes here.
Drawing, of course, would transcribe it better; I think technically the painting is preferrable for color film thou.
Yes. Unarticulated mystery of the horizon; wavy streams of warm air; distortion of the reality. Illusion of possiblity.
Similar to the my beloved old watercolors - nothing is set in stone (or guache)...

Posted by: Tatyana on March 2, 2004 02:03 PM

Thanks for the introduction to the Bruegel drawings.

I see your point about pleasant musings on mortality. There's something about the way my eye/mind is drawn to the sky that makes it seem as though it would be good and easy to go from the three dimensional detailed world to dissolving into open space.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on March 2, 2004 02:32 PM

Deb, if you liked that Auden poem, I would recommend William Carlos Williams' book, "Pictures from Brueghel". It's good stuff.

Posted by: mallarme on March 2, 2004 04:49 PM

mallarme-- off to Amazon. thanks for the tip!

Posted by: Deb on March 2, 2004 09:51 PM


If you enjoy Bruegel, I highly recommend “Headlong” by Michael Frayn, a novel about an art historian who believes he’s found a long-lost Bruegel in his neighbor’s house. The historian becomes obsessed with the painting and devises a scam to steal it away from his neighbors. Before stealing it, he must convince both himself and his wife (another art historian) that the painting is indeed a Bruegel.

While the plot may be silly at times, Frayn does a great job of incorporating research about Bruegel and 16th century art history. The book is research-heavy at times, but it’s definitely a fun read if you’d like to learn more about landscapes.

Posted by: bullpen_hamster on March 2, 2004 11:55 PM

These drawings, for reasons only known to my subconscious, or to God, make me muse on my mortality...

Probably because that guy in Spring is digging a grave. (And see those birds in the distance? They're vultures.)

Posted by: D. Melanogaster on March 3, 2004 01:49 AM

D. Melanogaster:

Interesting hypothesis, but I doubt that people in the God-fearing 16th century routinely buried their dead in ornamental gardens. And although I've seen vultures eating as a group, I've never observed them flying in formation. Still, as other comments have no doubt made clear, the Bruguel scholarship industry is still busily occupied, and perhaps they are more open-minded than I. Thanks for stopping by.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 3, 2004 04:43 AM

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