Pieter Brueghel: Paintings & Overview

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

What do landscapes, peasants, and morals have in common? In this lesson, you will learn about the life of painter Pieter Brueghel and how these three themes factored into his famous works.

Early Life of Pieter Brueghel

Pieter Brueghel was born in 1525 in a place called Breda, which is located in present-day Netherlands. During Brueghel's time, the Netherlands was not a single country, instead it was made up of small territories called duchies that were ruled by a duke or a duchess. Historians don't know too much about Brueghel's childhood, but they do know about his early career as a painter. Much of this information comes from a book written in 1604 called Het Schilderboeck (in English, that means 'The Book of Painters').

Before Brueghel became one of the greatest Dutch painters of the 1500s, he started out as an apprentice. An apprentice learns a trade from a skilled professional in exchange for working for little or no wages. You can think of internships as a modern form of apprenticeship. Anyways, Brueghel began as an apprentice for a man named Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a sculptor and architect from Brussels.

Coecke had lived and worked in Italy and Turkey, and many of the styles he used influenced some of Brueghel's later work. Coecke's wife was also an artist and taught Brueghel how to use watercolors and tempera, a paint made from different colors and egg yolks. Imagine cracking some eggs to make breakfast and to paint a masterpiece!

Travels to Italy

At the age of about 25 or 26, Pieter Brueghel left Brussels and set off for Italy, a land filled with not only pasta and pizza, but fabulous artists. Brueghel traveled down the Italian peninsula and worked in places like Sicily and Rome. Around this time, Brueghel began signing and dating his drawings, sketches, and paintings. As a result, historians and art experts are able to see how Brueghel's artwork evolved over time. Kind of like when your parents or family put a date on all of your childhood artwork...so you could see how your artistic ability changed from finger paints and stick figures to more advanced forms!

While in Rome, Brueghel worked with Giulio Clovio, who had studied with the famous Michelangelo. Clovio helped Brueghel grow as an artist and kept many of Brueghel's sketches and paintings in his home. During this time, Brueghel created his first signed and dated painting in 1553, called the Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias.

Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias
Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias

Brueghel's trip to Italy had a significant impact on his artwork. Growing up in the Netherlands, Brueghel was used to flat land. To get to Italy, he had to travel through the Alps. The sheer magnificence of the mountains captured Brueghel's imagination and became the focus of many of his drawings and sketches.

Brueghel's Paintings & Other Work

Most of Pieter Brueghel's artwork took the forms of drawings, etchings or prints, and paintings. Brueghel worked closely with an established printer named Hieronymus Cock. Brueghel designed etchings that Cock then used to make prints or images from. One of Brueghel's more famous etchings is Big Fish Eat Little Fish. Over the course of just eight years, Brueghel helped created over 40 different engravings.

Big Fish Eat Little Fish
Big Fish Eat Little Fish

Towards the end of Brueghel's career, he dedicated a lot of his time to painting. This was largely because he had so many wealthy patrons, or people sponsoring his work. His paintings generally depicted landscapes, peasants, and often a combination of the two.

Brueghel's landscapes were much different than traditional European landscapes. Instead of focusing on capturing how beautiful the land was, Brueghel's work engaged the senses and communicated a specific feeling. For one of his patrons, Brueghel painted a series of 16 landscapes that depicted the same space and how it changed over time. Of the 16 paintings, only 5 still exist:

  • Gloomy Day
  • Return of the Herd
  • Hunters in the Snow
  • Haymaking
  • The Harvesters

The Return of the Herd
The Return of the Herd

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