Close to half a million people saw the huge Bruegel exhibition in Vienna marking the 450th anniversary of the artist’s death. Pieter Bruegel the Elder died on September 9, 1569, but the Kunsthistorisches Museum pushed the show up a year so that lending institutions could celebrate with their Bruegels back on their walls. The exhibition’s slogan, “once in a lifetime,” was true. Never had so many works by this master been shown in one place: some twenty-seven paintings and seventy drawings and prints, more than half of his oeuvre and enough for a lifetime of looking.
It is unlikely that any museum will ever be able to assemble such an exhibition again. Most of Bruegel’s masterpieces are painted in oil on a wooden panel support. Sensitive to movement, temperature, and humidity, they rarely travel. Worried about the damage done by transport, museums are reluctant to lend panel paintings. There have been notable retrospectives in the past, but these had to make do with works on paper. In 1969 Brussels—where Bruegel settled in 1563 and where he died—tried to celebrate the fourth centenary of his death with a big show but could not secure the loans, so his prints were exhibited instead. The artist launched his career by designing engravings, but his fame rests on his paintings, and the lion’s share of these—including the most important—belong to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which rarely lends. This explains why the exhibition could only happen in Vienna, and why a city 570 miles from Brussels could celebrate Bruegel as if he were its native son.
Ordinarily Vienna’s twelve Bruegels fit into one big room. Mostly of a similar size and format, and sharing the same style, technique, and sensibility, these famous scenes of peasant revelry, popular games and customs, biblical history, and seasonal labor seem to belong to a single comprehensive cycle, like Giotto’s frescoes in Padua. This is an illusion. Framed and portable, each painting was designed to look at home wherever it ended up. The Bruegel Room at the Kunsthistorisches Museum is only a century old. When the museum opened in 1891, works by the artist were spread through the galleries of the so-called Northern Schools. That first hang was part of a reorganization of the Habsburg treasury carried out under Emperor Franz Joseph when he made his collections public. Natural specimens, together with ethnographic artifacts, were separated out for display in the Naturhistorisches Museum, which faces the Kunsthistorisches Museum with an identical façade. Into the latter went artworks tracing a genealogy from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome through the Renaissance and beyond, with Old Master paintings at the apex.
The Bruegel Room was the brainchild of Gustav Glück, one of the museum’s early directors. Around 1911 he hung the Bruegels in the central gallery directly across from the great rotunda, at what would become the dividing point between the Northern and the Italian (and French and Spanish) galleries. Such a programmatic placement now seems natural, but at the time it made a new argument about the history of art. Bruegel, who was reputed to have been born a peasant, had in the eighteenth century come to be regarded as artistically primitive, especially compared to the Italian masters. He only emerged from obscurity in the early twentieth century, as part of the shift in values associated with modernism, which celebrated his presumed rusticity.
In reality, though, Bruegel had been an urban and urbane artist who, painting for a clientele of discerning collectors, worked in a consciously retrospective, deliberately un-Italian, Netherlandish style. His take on peasants was precociously anthropological: he understood them as avatars of timeless humanity—Northern Europe’s antiquity, except not buried underground but alive and thriving in villages nearby. Unlike Vermeer, who rose to belated fame around 1900, Bruegel enjoyed international esteem in his lifetime. Praised by learned contemporaries, his art and name reached a worldwide audience through prints, and after his death his works were snapped up by the highest echelons of European society, most compulsively by Emperor Rudolf II, who gave them a prominent place in the huge art and wonder cabinet he created around 1600 in Prague.
Over the next hundred years Bruegel’s reputation declined. This was partly due to changing tastes and an abundance of inferior copies, many produced in the workshop of his eldest son and namesake. Another cause of his eclipse was—paradoxically—Habsburg patronage. In 1609 an aristocratic art collector wrote to Jan Brueghel (Pieter the Elder’s younger son) asking whether any autograph works by his father were available. Jan replied that the emperor had bought them all. Enshrined in the Imperial treasury in Prague and then in Vienna, these paintings withdrew from the public eye. Some went missing, while others were given as gifts, stolen, or seized. Of the original six Seasons, one found its way to the Prince of Lobkowicz, another was seized during the Napoleonic Wars and ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a third was lost forever. For many of the paintings, this year’s exhibition was a homecoming. The Lobkowicz family, having reclaimed its collections after the Velvet Revolution, generously lent Haymaking, uniting four of the five surviving Seasons (the Met deemed The Harvesters too fragile to send).
Seeing these paintings together was a revelation. Gigantic vistas with mighty rivers winding through them to the sea, they each capture differently their time of year as the vast, fluctuating envelope of air, water, and light in which all life, human and natural, precariously coexists. Colossal rock formations (conjured from the artist’s youthful journey across the Alps) set the represented time of day and of year against a vast geological scale. Each is plausibly the greatest painting ever made: Hunters in the Snow, with its pellucid distances and abstract planes of white;1 the subdued but radiant Return of the Herd, in which approaching winter, night, and death dwarf the close promise of home; Haymaking—the beautiful visitor from Prague—in which Earth yields fruits with almost comical abundance and the vast horizon is a promise, not a terror.
Bruegel, born between 1525 and 1530, began his career as an imitator of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516). One of his first engravings (an allegorical social satire of big fish eating little fish) names that older master as the “inventor,” probably to boost sales. Even when he does not paint monsters and demons, Bruegel draws deeply on Bosch for his bird’s-eye views, his huge, steep, perspectival ground planes teeming with strange figures, and his thin, translucent painting style. In the Vienna panels, Bruegel populates Boschian expanses not with devils or the damned but with villagers and children. His interest lies in the enigma of the human rather than in the machinations of some diabolical foe. The exhibition brought together Bruegel’s two most Bosch-like panels: the comical Dulle Griet (named after a giant virago of Netherlandish folklore who plunders hell with her army of housewives) and The Triumph of Death—the former of Spanish, the latter of Austrian Habsburg provenance. But even as he evokes the infernos of his Early Netherlandish predecessor, Bruegel also demonstrates his astonishingly contemporary sensibility. Long attributed to Bosch, The Triumph of Death shows something more terrifying than any of Bosch’s fantasies: mass murder on a new scale—entire systems built to slaughter, but neither God nor Satan to explain why—as was occurring in the religious wars and imperial conquests of the time.
Most of Bosch’s major works were originally triptychs with hinged wings. This had long been the format of altarpieces, which opened and closed to the rhythm of Christian liturgy. Bosch made some of his triptychs for display in princely palaces rather than for church altars, but even these pseudo-altarpieces make otherworldly claims. The mundane world they display and the lavish world they ornament are enemy territories: they presuppose a world where Satan plots our fall and God eyes us everywhere and always.
Bruegel’s demons, by contrast, are costumed rustics playacting the devil, and no divine court sits in judgment overhead. All that rises above his huge horizons are breaking wheels on poles, with carrion birds circling the corpses. The format of these paintings is itself worldly: single, usually oblong rectangles. This would become the standard format of European painting, but in the middle of the sixteenth century the triptych was still alive, and church art remained the bread and butter of the painter’s trade. Bruegel was the first major European artist to paint solely for art collectors. Although in his youth he painted the shutters of a triptych, once established he produced no altarpieces, epitaphs, or votive panels—nothing for use in a church.
This secular direction had been prepared by his prints. Produced in large editions by Antwerp publishers and sent abroad from that city’s ports, Bruegel’s engravings of Alpine views, Boschian phantasms, and ships at sea reached an international community of art lovers eager for novelty. This artist encouraged people to collect his prints by issuing them in sets and by styling individual prints as miniature collections in themselves. Each one of his seven engravings of the Deadly Vices shows its specific sin in a variety of forms, just as each of the Seasons gathers multiple manifestations of its time of year.
In 1559–1560, five years after his earliest engravings, Bruegel made his first monumental panel paintings, Netherlandish Proverbs, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, and Childrens’ Games, each of which contains (respectively) about a hundred sayings, customs, and games. Together they complete an atlas of the human as a creature that uses language, engages in ritual behavior (or “culture”), and is capable of play. We do not know whether this trio ever hung together, but the six panels of the Seasons did. Painted in 1565, they decorated a room in the country villa of the merchant banker Nicolaes Jonghelinck. A beneficiary of global trade, Jonghelinck commissioned art in comprehensive cycles—the Labors of Hercules, the Liberal Arts, the Seasons. He even gave his Antwerp townhouse a cosmic name: the Sphere of the Earth.
To this day, collectors seek Bruegel’s prints in complete series. The artist is a kindred spirit, in love with multiplicity and seeking the totality of the world. It was partly this encyclopedic tendency that made the Vienna show so satisfying, as if Bruegel painted with just such a comprehensive gathering in mind. But it would be misleading to characterize his paintings as always keeping us at a distance, leaving us to survey from afar his comprehensive visions. Each work also plunges us immediately into a maze of details—in The Triumph of Death, into countless individual deaths, each with its own grim ironies. The curators facilitated such close observation by creating a permanent website with the Vienna Bruegels in ultra-high resolution, along with X-radiographs and infrared photographs.
Even more generously, they displayed Vienna’s largest Bruegel—Christ Carrying the Cross (see illustration above)—in a glass box, with the picture removed from its frame and both sides visible, so that visitors could get within inches of its painted and unpainted surfaces. Christ Carrying the Cross makes the descent into its details a moral imperative. At first the painting looks like a happy genre scene spread across a Flemish countryside. Burghers march from the city through open fields to some entertainment in the distance, where eager spectators have already gathered in a wide circle. Close inspection reveals that inside that circle stand two empty crosses while a man digs a hole for a third. This, a latter-day Golgotha, leads us back into the thick of marching crowds, where we discover, minuscule at the painting’s center, Christ collapsed under the weight of the cross.
Christ crawls to his crucifixion ignored by people in the painting and (at first) by the painting’s viewers, because that is how the world is. People treat other people’s suffering with indifference now just as in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. In the foreground, Simon of Cyrene, the man compelled to carry Christ’s cross, resists the demand. His tough wife, ironically wearing rosary beads, tries to hold him back, too, while bystanders gawk, glad they’re not the one singled out. The entire procession forms part of a great circle that curves from the city gates far off at the left, forward toward the center, then back into the distance at the right, to Calvary. A gigantic rock outcrop, like the hub of a colossal wheel, measures this history of violence in eons. Viewed up close, the ground turns out to be a swampy palimpsest of wheel ruts, hoofprints, and treads, suggesting that this procession and the countless others before it have eroded the earth into a valley of death. At this proximity, something else comes into view. The scarred earth appears wonderfully luminous because it was painted so thinly on a white chalk ground. The ruts, puddles, and fresh green grasses—evocative of a spring thaw in Northern Europe—are painted swiftly and with cunning tricks and gestures: a dazzling performance of painterly craft.
The exhibition celebrated the master’s hand by detailing, in explanatory displays and photographs in the side galleries, Bruegel’s artistic process layer by layer. This new emphasis on materials and making was a welcome corrective to most previous scholarship, which had been concerned with meanings. There has never been a better painter than Bruegel. Always flawless in his design and execution yet different in each of his works, the peerless painter of the low-life genre yet attaining a monumental vision of the whole, a virtuoso in the ways he manipulates paint yet never contrived, he makes his only rivals (Jan van Eyck, Titian, and Velázquez) seem limited, repetitive, or artificial by comparison.
Along the entire left edge of Christ Carrying the Cross, a framing tree curves in and out of the unpainted edge of the panel, its bark roughly the color of that naked wood. Bruegel has so much to say that presses up against this narrow strip: in details that only the closest inspection brings to light, he has squeezed in a little gallery of everyday life, including a poor young couple dragging a basket with newborn calves toward town, in reverse of the great counterclockwise parade. He captures the quiet resistance of the ordinary—what W.H. Auden celebrated in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” his poem about Bruegel: the “untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”2
The exhibition obscured this important aspect of his work by making Habsburg sovereignty the starting point and frame of Bruegel’s oeuvre. In the first gallery, the artist’s earliest sketches followed visual documents showing how his works had hung in the imperial collections. This made the Habsburgs seem as if they had been his patrons, when of course he pitched his prints to a very broad audience, and the main client for his paintings was a well-to-do burgher not unlike himself—Jonghelinck’s brother Jacques, who made his living as a sculptor and medalist.
Much more crucially, Bruegel was profoundly skeptical of sovereign power. In his world, attempts at mastery inevitably fail: Icarus plunges unnoticed into the sea, King Saul falls on his sword, and the Tower of Babel leans as it spirals into the sky, structurally flawed and doomed to fall even without divine intervention. And meanwhile the powerful are foolish, violent, and cruel. In Christ Carrying the Cross, soldiers wearing the red garb of Habsburg mercenaries force Christ to crawl to Calvary; in Massacre of the Innocents, Herod’s army wears Habsburg uniforms. After the Protestant revolt of 1566, Spanish forces marched on the Netherlands to crush dissent and stamp out heresy. Arriving in 1567, the Duke of Alba placed the region under martial law, disbanding citizen militias, replacing native officials with Spanish ones, and executing many thousands, including the Counts of Egmond and Horn, who were beheaded in the Grand-Palace of Brussels, just a few blocks from Bruegel’s workshop on the rue Haute. Alba also clamped down on peasant customs and festivals, like the ones the artist lovingly portrayed.
Bruegel’s first biographer, Karel van Mander, reported that before he died he ordered that many of his works be destroyed for fear their satire might incriminate his wife. The Magpie on the Gallows, one of his last surviving paintings (lent to Vienna by the Landesmuseum Darmstadt), shows peasants dancing—foolishly and perhaps rebelliously—under the gallows. Bruegel builds the gallows as an impossible structure, like a Penrose triangle, with the crosspiece plunging into space but the posts parallel to the picture plane, as if to say that law is irrational and ought best to be played with rather than blindly obeyed. How Bruegel’s Habsburg admirers understood such a painting remains a mystery. Perhaps they took it to be an admonition, as when the slaves in Roman triumphs whispered continuously to the victorious emperor, “Remember that you are but a man!”
The Bruegel exhibition opened on the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. Vienna in 1918 was transformed from the nerve center of a great multinational empire to the dysfunctional capital of a tiny Alpine republic. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has become prosperous and cosmopolitan again, fostering dreams of a resurgent Mitteleuropa. In the exhibition, Vienna laid claim to an old and illustrious artistic patrimony. And this painter now belongs intimately to this city he never visited. When all the works on loan have gone home, the Bruegel room will still be Vienna’s most beautiful interior and the uncanny temple to the city’s triumphs and its laments.
See the recent volume Bruegel’s Winter Scenes, edited by Tine Luk Meganck and Sabine van Sprang (Yale University Press, 2019), which considers Bruegel’s winter landscapes in light of a host of historical circumstances, including climate, tax policy, and drinking practices. ↩
This perspective on Bruegel at the Kunsthistorisches Museum is beautifully captured by Jem Cohen in his 2012 film, Museum Hours. ↩