- The All Too Human Dignity of Pieter Bruegel the Elder [Biography]
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Pieter Bruegel (the Elder)

For the lover of realism in art, Flemish painting is like a four-course meal with dessert. Whether you like landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, florals, or genre there is something here for everyone to look upon with awe. And, one of the most awe-inspiring artists of this tiny part of Europe was Pieter Bruegel (pronounced BROY-gle). He was born around 1525, barely thirty years after the voyages of Columbus, at a time when Europe was only starting to awaken from the long sleep of the medieval period and while many vestiges of the Dark Ages still prevailed over much of the continent. The Spanish ruled his country and were trying to impose their language upon the populace. Great nations were only starting to evolve as modern civilisation spread northward from the Mediterranean.

Bruegel is a hard artist to categorise. At times, as in his Peasant Wedding of 1567, he seems to be the Northern Renaissance precursor to Norman Rockwell. At other times, as in his best-loved painting, Hunters in the Snow of 1565, there is something of a Grandma Moses quality to his work. Some of his other paintings are steeped in religion, superstition, and fantasy. All of these were basic elements of daily life in the times in which he lived. And while he is quite technically proficient in the handling of paint, perspective, and a multiplicity of details, there is also something of an awkward stiffness in some of his figures. But rather than detracting from his work, this peculiar element causes them to come across as rather charming instead.

Perhaps Bruegel's most famous painting is his masterful Tower of Babel painted in 1563, at the height of Spanish oppression in the region. It is a tour-de-force of subtle political, religious, and moral comment bound up in an exciting panorama of biblical storytelling. In the foreground is Nimrod, King of Babylon, (the king of Spain?) surrounded by his entourage, being worshipped by local peasants while nearby, masons cut blocks of stone for the wonderfully intricate fantasy structure rising like a man-made mountain in the centre of the composition. Even though the painting is but a modest 44"x 61", an incredible amount of detail is rendered of the ill-fated construction project. Scaffolding is depicted board by board. One can almost count the knots in the rigging of the ships bringing building supplies to the site. In this painting, if "the devil is in the details", then the work of this remarkable draughtsman/painter/ pictorial historian, marks the outer limits of sinful busy-work an artist can cram into a single square inch of painted canvas.

contributed by Lane, Jim

24 March 1998

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