The Thing Itself

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints

catalog of the exhibition edited by Nadine M. Orenstein, with additional contributions by Manfred Sellink, Jürgen Müller, Michiel C. Plomp, Martin Royalton-Kisch, and Larry Silver
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 25–December 2, 2001.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 323 pp., $60.00; $35.00 (paper)

It felt not too strange, flying down from Boston a month to the day after the World Trade Center disaster, braving the beefed-up security in the city’s disgraced Logan Airport (tall state troopers in blue jodhpurs and diagonal belts, pink-cheeked boys in reserve camouflage outfits, grizzled cops squinting at a long day of light duty, the same old security personnel galvanized by a new sense of mission as they waved their peepy wands), gazing down on the widespread loveliness of a Connecticut whose trees were glowing with autumnal red, approaching New York by a wary new route well away from the Hudson and maimed Manhattan, coming into LaGuardia over more golf courses than I had ever known existed in Westchester County, and taking a taxi (the driver bitterly complained of his month of diminished fares) to the fine little Bruegel show at the Metropolitan—fifty-four of his sixty-one surviving drawings, sixty prints based on his drawings, and another twenty drawings imitating his or long thought to be by him.

Bruegel’s world, like ours, showed a gaping divide between the monstrous and the magnificent, between freaks and demons and hellish fantasies out of Hieronymus Bosch and landscapes near paradisal in their impervious splendor. Like ours, his was an age rent by religion: his increasingly Protestant Netherlands was a province of Catholic Spain, and toward the end of Bruegel’s short life (he died in 1569, probably in his early forties) Philip II of Spain sent the Duke of Alva and twenty thousand troops to administer a reign of terror and chastise the infidels. Scholars have pored over the meager record of the artist’s life and over his enigmatic art for clues as to where Bruegel himself stood. Some of his best patrons were part of the Catholic establishment, while his paintings democratically vote for the peasantry as it tried, beneath the clash of creeds and principalities, to do its work and have a little fun.

The Bruegel who painted peasants with such lively sympathy that his first biographer, Karel van Mander, supposed him to have been one is scarcely present in the drawings. Only one drawing, The Bagpipe Player, dated in the mid-1560s, is the kind of figure study that must have fed into the monumental rural folk that grow in size and expressiveness on his later canvases. A number of eminently Bruegelian sketches of such figures, complete with color notations as if for paintings, turn out, two scholars independently demonstrated in the late 1960s, to be by Roelandt Savery (1576–1639). The Savery brothers appear to have made an unsavory business of following closely in Bruegel’s tracks; Jacob Savery (circa 1565–1603) produced twenty-five pen landscapes signed with Bruegel’s name and considered authentic until well into the twentieth century. The temptation to forgery and close imitation—some of it long considered authentic Bruegel and indeed of authentically high quality—arose from Bruegel’s great popularity, which underwent no eclipse after his death, and from the …

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