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Pieter Bruegel the Elder
(1528/30 - 1569)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Signature.

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Pieter Bruegel (the Elder) was a Flemish artist active in Antwerp and Brussels, famous for his paintings and drawings of landscapes and scenes of robust peasant life, and founder of a dynasty of artists that remained active well into the 17th century. 

Bruegel's art is often seen as the last phase in the development of a long tradition of Netherlandish painting beginning with Jan van Eyck in the 15th century. This tradition transformed the abstraction of medieval art into a more empirical view of reality.  

  • Austria 1969.  Detail of a drawing assumed to show Bruegel's self-portrait, issued in commemoration of the Albertina Museum's (Vienna) 200th anniversary.  

Austria 1969. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Detail of a drawing assumed to show Bruegel's self-portrait.
Belgum 1969. Souvenir sheet showing a detail of the drawing depicting the artist, and his patron who admires his work behind him.

Bruegel clearly rejected the influences of Italian Renaissance art and its classical foundations, which dominated the work of many of his Flemish contemporaries. Rather than mythological subjects, muscular nudes, and idealized scenes, Bruegel's art portrays figures observed from nature, acting out realistic situations in believable contemporary settings.  

Unlike most other painters, Pieter Bruegel produced hardly any self-portraits, being disinclined to glorify his own person.  

Occasionally, however, one may find a bearded figure occupying an unassuming position at the edge of a picture, a figure who might possibly be the painter himself.  

One such example is this pen-and-Indian-Ink drawing "The Painter and the Patron" (also known as "The Painter and the Connoisseur")  See also the detail shown immediately above, issued by Austria. 

  • Belgium 1969.  Souvenir sheet, showing a detail of the drawing depicting the artist and his patron who admires his work behind him.  

Bruegel is thought to have come from the town of Breda, located in northern Brabant in present-day Holland. Born Pieter Brueghel, he later dropped the h from his name. Before he became a member of the painters' guild in Antwerp in 1551, he seems to have studied with Pieter Coecke in Brussels and worked for a short time in Malines (Mechelen).  After a trip to Italy between 1552 and 1555, Bruegel returned to Antwerp. In 1563 he married Coecke's daughter, Maria Coecke van Aelst, and moved to Brussels, where he resided until his death in September 1569. Their two children, Pieter the Younger and Jan, both became painters of some renown. 

Bruegel's earliest works were landscapes, an interest he retained throughout his life. A number of panoramic landscape drawings made on his Italian trip show Bruegel's ability, even in his early career, to depict the changing seasonal moods and the atmospheric qualities of nature. 

These same characteristics appear in his later landscape paintings, such as "Winter Landscape with a Bird-Trap" (painted 1565). 

People are enjoying themselves on the ice; meanwhile, the birds are endangered through a door rigged to function as a deadfall.  Since several of the birds have been painted as large as the people in the picture, some would interpret this work not only as depicting a winter landscape, but also -- primarily -- as being intended as a warning to the observer to be on his guard against constant danger.  

Belgium 1976. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Winter Landscape with a Bird-Trap.

Liberia 1969. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Hunters returning home in the snow. Romania 1990. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Spring. (Damaged Painting).

Ras Al Khaima 1969. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Land of Cockaigne.

After his return to Antwerp from Italy in 1555, Bruegel regularly made drawings for engravings published by the printing house owned by the graphic artist Hieronymus Cock. Some of Bruegel's drawings for Cock were landscapes, but others were clearly meant to capitalize on the popularity of the bizarre art of Bruegel's famous Flemish predecessor Hieronymus Bosch. 

The fantastic, monstrous figures and demonic dwarfs in Bruegel's series of engravings "The Seven Deadly Vices" (1557) are within this category. 

Also within this category is his painting "The Land of Cockaigne" shown here; a wonderful painting depicting a more than relaxed gentleman, lying flat on his fur coat after having enjoyed a splendid meal and maybe also some beer. 

  • Ras Al Khaima 1969. "The Land of Cockaigne", c. 1567. Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. The stamp was issued to promote the International Museum Campaigne in 1969. 

Late in the 1550s, Bruegel began a series of large painted panels with complex compositions depicting various aspects of Flemish folk life. The earliest of these is an encyclopedic portrayal of common sayings, "Netherlandish Proverbs" (1559), followed by "Combat Between Carnival and Lent" (1559) and "Children's Games" (1560). 

Belgium 1969. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Children's Games.

All Bruegel's paintings are marked by a perceptive observation of human nature, a pervasive wit, and the vitality of his peasant figures. Remarkably simple in their composition, these figures are outstanding in their description of the harsh peasant life and the struggle for surviving. Both stamps are semi-postals, issued for the benefit of the FAO Campaign "Freedom from Hunger". Seen from a philatelic art collector's view an excellent choice of subject for the stamps :-) 
Belgium 1963. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Sewer. Belgium 1963. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Summer. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Fragment of the painting "The Summer".

Later examples of peasant folk subjects include "Peasant Dance" and "Peasant Wedding" (both 1568).  The below two stamps both show a detail from the painting "Peasant Dance".  With this work Bruegel created an entirely new genre: the farmer and his life were artistically immortalized for the first time.  I find it interesting to see how differently the same painting can turn out on a stamp in different layouts and printing methods. 

Throughout his life Bruegel felt attracted to the harsh life of farmers, who until that time was only tolerated at best, but in "Peasant Dance" became a hero.  The painting belongs to the Albertina Museum in Vienna.  

France 2001. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Peasant Dance.

  • France 2001. "Peasant Dance".   

  • Austria 1971. Idem. 

Austria 1971. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Peasant Dance.

Modern scholars are far from interpreting Bruegel's art as simple whimsical folk subjects painted by an artist from mere peasant stock, as the  painter and art historian Karel van Mander described him in 1604. Recent writers see him as a knowledgeable man who was known to be a friend of such intellectuals as geographer and cartographer Abraham Ortelius, the latter having said: 

"Those painters who, painting graceful creatures in the prime of life, seek to superimpose on the painted subject some further element of charm or elegance sprung from their free imagination disfigure the entire portrayed creation, are untrue to their model, and thereby deviate to an equal extent from true beauty.  Our Bruegel is free from this fault".

Bruegel's pictures have been variously interpreted as referring to the beliefs of different religious thinkers, to the conflicts between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, to the political domination of the Lowlands by the Spanish, and as visual equivalents to dramatic allegories performed publicly by Flemish societies of rhetoric.  

Belgium 1969. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Detail of the painting "Census of Bethlehem". Belgium 1982. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Detail of the painting "The Little Towr of Babel".

Belgium 1976. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Detail of the painting "Blind Leading Blind".

No matter how one perceives Bruegel and his work, one must bear in mind that he lived in dangerous times.  

It was often necessary to survive on black humour, beautifully shown in this wonderful painting, issued by Belgium 1976 for the Association for Language Promotion!  So many ways of broadcasting a message ... 

  • Belgium 1976.  Detail of the painting "Blind Leading Blind", painted 1568. Oil on linen. Belongs to the National Museum, Naples (Italy).  

Bruegel was living in Brussels when the Duke of Alba led his army into the city in August 1567.  The Duke had been sent by Philip II, the Spanish king, to whose empire the Netherlands provinces belonged.  The commander's orders were to forcibly convert the Protestants; during the years that followed he would have several thousand Netherlanders sentenced to death.  This extreme harshness resulted first in an uprising, and then in a war that lasted eighty years, ending with the division of the land into Catholic Belgium (as it would later become known) in the south and Protestant Holland in the north.  The year 1567, in which King Philip and the Duke of Alba entered Brussels, would bring the great turning point in the history of the Netherlands provinces, and Bruegel was to witness the events from close to. 

As mentioned above, Pieter Bruegel's son, Jan Bruegel, who lived 1568-1626, also became a painter of some renown, and his works have appeared on a number of stamps. The most interesting one is this painting of "Vase with Flowers", issued by Romania in 1990 in the above mentioned series of damaged paintings in the National Art Museum in Bucharest. 

In Romania's fight for liberation December 1989, severe street battles took place, and the National Art Museum in Bucharest, including some of the art works displayed, were no exception to be damaged in these battles. 

The damages were so impressive, that Romania issued a rather unusual set of six stamps, showing the paintings with their bullet holes. More damaged paintings from this incident can be seen at the page of the Romanian painter Stefan Luchian on this site. 

Together with this painting, also one of the paintings by the artist's father, Pieter Bruegel, is among the damaged art works.

  • Romania 1990. Damaged painting by Jan Bruegel. 

Romania 1990. Jan Bruegel (Pieter Bruegel the Elder's son). Damaged painting at the  National Museum of Art, Bucharest.

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