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Pieter Bruegel the Elder
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One of the greatest Northern European artists of the 16th century, Flemish painter and draftsman Pieter Bruegel had a significant influence on European art. His landscapes, peasant scenes and allegories were often very enigmatic. About forty of his paintings survive, along with one etching and some seventy drawings. Until the 19th century he was mostly known for the approximately seventy engravings and etchings made by others to his designs during his lifetime and shortly thereafter. Artists continued to make prints after his designs for decades after his death. Relatively little is known about Bruegel’s life. Most of the information we have comes from a short biography in Het Schider-boek (The Book on Painting) by artist Karel van Mander (1548-1606), published thirty-five years after Bruegel’s death, and inferences made from his art. Bruegel was probably born in Breda, then in the Duchy of Brabant, sometime between 1525 and 1530. Van Mander wrote that Bruegel was an apprentice to Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550) in Antwerp around 1545-1550. Bruegel may have been taught manuscript illumination by Coecke’s artist wife Mayken Verhulst (ca. 1520-1600). He later married their daughter. From September 1550 to October 1551 Bruegel worked in Mechelen for painter and art dealer Claude Dorizi, collaborating with Pieter Balten (ca. 1527-1584) on painting a now-lost altarpiece ordered by the glove makers’ guild for St. Rombout’s Cathedral there. Bruegel joined the artists’ Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp during the guild’s year beginning in October 1551. He possibly worked both in Antwerp and Mechelen for the next year or so, and may have worked with the print publisher Hieronymus Cock (1518-1570) in Antwerp. Bruegel’s earliest surviving dated drawings, all landscapes, are from 1552. Bruegel traveled to Italy for a few years, probably beginning in 1552. Based drawings he made, he probably traveled to Calabria and Sicily. He was in Rome in 1553, and probably returned to Flanders in 1554. Cock published prints after Bruegel’s designs beginning in 1555, leading to the inference that Bruegel then lived in Antwerp. The prints were a dozen landscapes, known today as the Large Landscapes (N. Holl. 49-60), engraved by the brothers Jan (ca. 1530-1605) and Lucas (?-ca. 1589) van Doetechum. Cock went on to publish sixty-four prints after drawings by Bruegel, including satirical and allegorical works such as The Large Fishes Devouring the Small Fishes (1557, N. Holl. 31), and the allegories Seven Deadly Sins (1556-58, N. Holl. 212-27) and Seven Virtues (1559-60, N. Holl. 13-19). Most of the plates were engraved the van Doetechum brothers, Pieter van der Heyden (ca. 1530-after 1572), Philip Galle (1537-1612) and Frans Huys (1522-1562). Bruegel’s only surviving etching, The Rabbit Hunt (N.Holl. 1), was printed by Cock in 1560. These prints, widely distributed and greatly admired, led Giorgio Vasiri (1511-1574) to call Bruegel a “second Bosch” in his Vite (Lives of the Artists, 1568). Bruegel’s first dated paintings are from 1557; he created only six paintings before 1562. These include the well-known allegorical works from 1559, Netherlandish Proverbs (Berlin: Gemäldegalerie) and The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Mus.). His career in painting blossomed in 1562, when he created five works that survive, such as Dulle Griet (Mad Meg, Antwerp: Mus. Mayer van den Bergh). He then went on to make at least five paintings a year until the year before he died. He may have been encouraged to paint more by his most important patron, Antwerp collector Nicolaes Jongelinck (1517-1570), who acquired sixteen of his paintings. In 1563 Bruegel married Mayken Coecke (1545?-1578) in Brussels, having previously moved there from Antwerp. They had two sons, Pieter Brueghel II (1564-1638) and Jan Brueghel I (1568-1625), who both became artists, and a daughter about whom little is known. Bruegel’s works attracted patronage from Jean Noirot, the Master of the Antwerp Mint, Antwerp cartographer and geographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) and the Archbishop of Mechelen, Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle 1517-1586). While Breugel focused on painting after he moved to Brussels, he continued to create drawings for prints published by Cock. One of his last works is an enigmatic drawing, The Beekeepers, probably from 1568. The original is in Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett; a nearly identical copy by his workshop is in the Fine Arts Museums collection. Van Mander wrote that Bruegel burned several drawings before his death, fearing that they were too scandalous. He died during September of 1569 in Brussels. (TNB 12/2012) Selected bibliography: Orenstein, Nadine M. Introducton to "Pieter Bruegel the Elder" in Hollstein, F. W. H. The new Hollstein, Dutch & Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts, 1450-1700. Oudekerk aan den Ijssel: Sound & Vision Publishers; Amsterdam: Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, 2006. Sellink, Manfred. Bruegel: The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints. Ghent: Ludion, 2007.