Artist Spotlight: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569) lived in Flanders (today’s Belgium) and worked mainly in Antwerp and Brussels. He was a progenitor of a family of artists. Both his sons, Pieter and Jan, followed their father’s footsteps, and to differentiate between them the father is usually referred to as “the Elder.” One of his most famous paintings is The Hunters in the Snow which we can see in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Interestingly, Bruegel was a very well-renowned painter during his lifetime – his paymasters were willing to pay large sums not only for the originals but also for copies painted by his sons. One of them was a wealthy merchant/banker who commissioned Bruegel’s most famous painting –  The Hunters in the Snow which was part of a series of six paintings depicting different times of the year and people’s labour fitting the particular seasons. Only five of them survived, and are situated in museums in Prague, New York, and Vienna.

The colours of the paintings bring out the wintery atmosphere. Muted whites and greyish periwinkle-blues dominate the picture. We can almost feel the cold emanating from this landscape. At the foreground, there are three hunters followed by the dogs. The hunt was not successful – we can only see a rabbit or a fox hanging off the hunter’s back. There is a sense of defeat in the air as we look at the miserable dogs and the disappointed hunters who have their heads down and struggling to march through the deep snow.

As our gaze explores the painting further, a different scene unveils to our eyes, depicting a rather different side of winter. There are people playing on a frozen pond – children are chasing each other, somebody has fallen, a man is playing something resembling ice-hockey of the 16th century. However, there are also people who can’t participate in this playfulness and need to focus on their day-to-day tasks such as carrying firewood. It is important to notice how carefully is this painting devised. Our eyes follow the hunters walking down the slope. The trees add to the overall powerful impression of depth. The mountains in the background are also a significant element of the composition. Even though the landscape seems to be depicting the Flemish reality, such high mountains cannot be found in the Netherlands. Since Bruegel travelled to Italy, and in order to do so he had to cross the Alps, he decided to incorporate them within the painting, thus alluding to the Netherlandish tradition of the “world landscape” which combines different elements of the world, such as waters and mountains, into one landscape.

The reality of winter in this painting is made up of many small narratives which Bruegel invites us to delve into. Scenes of joyful moments and prosaic domestic duties, all situated within the wintery aura, interweave composing an intriguing combination. Despite the multitude of motifs, the broad space is far from chaotic. Hunters in the Snow is a virtuoso demonstration of the artist’s painterly abilities who pictured a winter landscape filled with calmness and coldness. By juxtaposing life, represented by the people and emphasised by the occasional warm colours (the fire as well as brown and orange houses), with the vast wintery prospect, Bruegel marked the landscape out as the main focus of the painting. It is considered to be a milestone for Western European art – the landscape is no longer a mere background but is of equal (or even greater) importance as the scenes involving people. Hunters in the Snow masterfully shows a universal union between humans and nature – something we might have lost in this day and age.

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