Except for Brueghel and tapestry this was a fallow age in Lowland art. Painting fluctuated between emulation of the Italians—in refined technique, rich coloring, classic mythology, nude women, and Roman architectural backgrounds—and the native flair for realistic portrayal of eminent persons and ordinary things. Patronage came not only from the court, the Church, and the aristocracy, but increasingly from rich merchants who offered their stout forms and overflowing jowls to the admiration of posterity, and liked to see reflected in painting the domestic scenes and rural landscapes of their actual life. A sense of humor, sometimes of the grotesque, replaced the lofty mood of the Italian masters. Michelangelo criticized what seemed to him a lack of discrimination and nobility in Flemish art: “They paint in Flanders only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you... the grass of the fields, the shadows of the trees, and bridges and rivers .... and little objects here and there .... without care in selecting and rejecting/’12 To Michelangelo art was the selection of significance for the illustration of nobility, not the indiscriminate representation of reality; his solemn nature, encased in his irremovable boots and his misanthropic isolation, was immune to the glory of green fields and the affections of the hearth.
For our part we make a grateful bow to Joachim Patinir, if only for the Leonardesque landscape in his St. Jerome; to Joos van Cleve for his lovely portrait of Eleanor of Portugal; to Bernaert van Orley for his Holy Family in the Prado, his tapestry designs, and his stained glass in Brussels’ St.-Gudule; to Lucas van Leyden for crowding so many masterly engravings and woodcuts into his thirty-nine years; to Jan van Scorel for the Magdalen cherishing the vase of ointments from which she had bathed the feet of Christ; and to Anthonis Mor for his forceful portraits of Alva, Cardinal Granvelle, Philip II, Mary Tudor, and, not least, himself.
Note how the painting craft in the Netherlands ran in families. Joos van Cleve handed down some of his skill to his son Cornelis, who painted some fine portraits before going mad. Jan Massys, inheriting the studio of his father Quentin, painted by preference nudes like Judith and Suzanna and the Elders; his son Quentin Massys II carried on the trade, while his brother Cornells took his art to England and painted Henry VIII in old age, bloated and hideous. Pieter Pourbus and his son Frans painted portraits and pieties at Bruges, and Frans’s son Frans Pourbus II painted portraits at Paris and Mantua. And there were Pieter “Droll” Brueghel, his painter wife, his painter mother-in-law, his sons Pieter “Hell” Brueghel and Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, his painter grandsons, his painter great-grandsons.....
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, whose fame is among the inescapable fashions of our time, may have derived his name from either of two villages named Brueghel in Brabant; one of them was near Hertogenbosch, where Hieronymus Bosch had been born, and in whose churches Pieter might have seen several paintings of the man who influenced his work only less than nature itself. At twenty-five (c. 1545) he migrated to Antwerp, and was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke, whose landscape woodcuts may have helped to form the young painter’s interest in fields, woods, waters, and sky. This lesser Pieter had begotten a daughter, Maria, whom Brueghel toddled in his arms as a child, and whom he later made his wife. In 1552 he followed the current custom of his craft and went to study painting in Italy. He returned to Antwerp with a sketchbook thick with Italian landscapes, but with no visible Italian influence on his technique; to the end he practically ignored the subtle modeling, chiaroscuro, and coloratura of the southern masters. Back in Antwerp, he lived with a housekeeper-concubine, whom he promised to marry when she stopped lying; he recorded her lies with notches cut into a stick; and having no stick for his own sins, he renounced her when the notches overflowed. In his middle forties (1563) he married Maria Coecke, now seventeen, and obeyed her summons to move to Brussels. He had only six years of life left to him.
Though his paintings led to his being dubbed “Peasant Brueghel,” he was a man of culture, who read Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Rabelais, probably Erasmus.13 Karel Mander, the Dutch Vasari, described him as “tranquil and orderly, speaking little, yet amusing in company, delighting to horrify people .... with tales of ghosts and banshees”;14 hence, perhaps, his other sobriquet, “Droll Brueghel.” His sense of humor leaned to satire, but he tempered this with sympathy. A contemporary engraving shows him heavily bearded, with a face bearing lines of serious thought.15 At times he followed Bosch in seeing life as a heedless hurrying of most souls to hell. In the Dulle Griet he pictured hell as hideously and confusedly as Bosch himself; and in The Triumph of Death he visioned death not as a natural sleep of exhausted forms, but as a ghastly cutting off of limbs and life—skeletons attacking kings, cardinals, knights, and peasants with arrows, hatchets, stones, and scythes—criminals beheaded or hanged or bound to a wheel—skulls and corpses riding in a cart; here is one more variant of that: “Dance of Death” which flits through the art of this somber age.
Brueghel’s religious pictures carry on the serious mood. They have neither the grandeur nor the light grace of Italian pictures; they merely reinterpret the Biblical story in terms of Flemish climate, physiognomy, and dress. They rarely reveal religious feeling; most of them are excuses for painting crowds. Even the faces in them carry no feeling; the people who jostle one another to see Christ carry His cross seem heedless of His suffering, but only anxious to get a good view. Some of the pictures are Biblical parables, like The Sower; some others, following Bosch, take proverbs for their themes. The Blind Leading the Blind shows a succession of dull-eyed peasants, cruelly ugly, following one another into a ditch; and Netherlandish Proverbs illustrates, in one teeming picture, nearly a hundred old saws, including some of Rabelaisian fragrance.
Brueghel’s major interest was in peasant crowds, and landscapes covering with their indifferent beneficence or maleficence the futile, forgivable activities of men. Perhaps he thought there was safety in crowds; there he need not individualize the faces or model the flesh. He refused to picture a person posing for art or history; he preferred to show men, women, and children walking, running, jumping, dancing, playing games, in all the varied animation and naturalness of life. He harked back to the scenes of his childhood, and delighted to contemplate, to join, the fun and feasting, music and mating, of the peasantry. He and a friend, on several occasions, disguised themselves as farmers, attended village fairs and weddings, and—pretending to be relatives—brought presents to bridegroom and bride.16 Doubtless on these outings Pieter took his sketchbook, for among his extant drawings are many of rustic figures and events. He had no taste for, nor commissions from, the aristocrats that Mor and Titian found it so profitable to portray; he painted only simple people, and even his dogs were mongrel curs that could be found in any city alley or rural hut. He knew the bitter side of peasant life, and sometimes visioned it as a multitudinous confusion of fools. But he loved to paint the games of country children, the dances of their elders, the riot of their weddings. In The Land of Cockayne peasants exhausted with toil or love or drink sprawl out on the grass dreaming of Utopia. It is the peasant, Brueghel seems to say, who knows how to play and sleep as well as how to work and mate and die.
Against death he saw but one consolation—that it is an integral part of that Nature which he accepted in all its forms of beauty and terror, growth and decay and renewal. The landscape redeems the man; the absurdity of the part is pardoned in the majesty of the whole. Heretofore—excepting Altdorfer—landscapes had been painted as backgrounds and appendages to human figures and events: Brueghel made the landscape itself the picture, the men in it mere incidents. In The Fall of Icarus the sky, the ocean, the mountains, and the sun have absorbed the attention of the painter, and of the participants; Icarus is two unnoticed legs ridiculously sinking into the sea; and in The Storm man is hardly visible, lost and helpless in the war and power of the elements.
The art and philosophy of Brueghel culminate in the five paintings that remain of a series planned to illustrate the moods of the year. The Wheat Harvest schematically pictures the cutting and stacking of the sheaves, the workers lunching or napping beneath the visible heat and stillness of the summer air. In The Hay Harvest girls and boys bear the autumn fruit of the fields in baskets on their heads, a farmer sharpens his scythe, sturdy women rake the hay, men pitch it to the top of the wagon load, the horses champ their meal in a resting interval. The Return of the Herd heralds winter—the skies darkling, the cattle guided back to their stalls. Finest of the series is The Hunters in the Snow: roofs and ground are white; dwellings range in an amazing perspective along the plains and hills; men skate, play hockey, fall on the ice; hunters and their dogs start out to capture food; the trees are bare, but birds in the branches promise spring. The Gloomy Day is winter scowling its farewell. In these paintings Brueghel reached his peak, and set a precedent for the snowy landscapes of future Lowland art.
Only a painter or a connoisseur can judge these pictures in their artistic quality and technique. Brueghel seems content to give his figures two dimensions, does not bother to mingle shadow with their substance; he lets our imagination, if it must, add a third dimension to his two. He is too interested in crowds to care about individuals; he makes nearly all his peasants alike, ungainly lumps of flesh. He does not pretend to be a realist, except in gross. He puts so many people or episodes into one painting that unity seems sacrificed; but he catches the unconscious unity of a village, a crowd, a wave of life.
What does he mean to say? Is he merely jesting, laughing at man as a grotesque “forked radish,” and at life as a silly strutting to decay? He enjoyed the lusty swing of the peasants’ dance, sympathized with their toil, and looked with indulgent humor on their drunken sleep. But he never recovered from Bosch. Like that unsaintly Jerome, he took sardonic pleasure in depicting the bitter side of the human comedy—the cripples and criminals, the defeated or obscene, the inexorable victory of death. He seems to have searched for ugly peasants; he caricatures them, never lets them smile or laugh; if he gives their crude faces any expression it is one of dull indifference, of sensitivity beaten out by the blows of life.17 He was impressed and hurt by the apathy with which the fortunate bear the misery of the unfortunate, the haste and relief with which the living forget the dead. He was oppressed by the vast perspective of nature—that immensity of sky under which all human events seem drowned in insignificance, and virtue and vice, growth and decay, nobility and ignominy alike seem lost in a vast and indiscriminate futility, and man is swallowed up in the landscape of the world.
We do not know if this was Brueghel’s real philosophy, or merely the playfulness of his art. Nor do we know why he gave up the battle so soon, dying at forty-nine (1569); perhaps more years would have softened his wrath. He bequeathed to his wife an ambiguous picture, The Merry Way to the Gallows, a masterly composition in fresh greens and distant blues, peasants dancing near the village gibbet, and, perched on this, a magpie, emblem of a chattering tongue.