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Creator / Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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Bruegel's "Peasant Wedding", in which he has a Creator Cameo himself.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-1530 – 9 September 1569) was a 16th-century Flemish painter, most famous for his depictions of the life of the common people or peasants. During his lifetime and even centuries later most people looked down upon Bruegel's art. Art critics felt it was nothing more than a vulgar depiction of everyday life without any actual esthetic merit. While many of his contemporaries painted pictures of royals, rich people and religious scenes Bruegel had attention for the lower and undervalued classes of society.

As Time Marches On, Bruegel's paintings and drawings have been Vindicated by History because of their historical importance. His art is almost like a documentary of 16th century everyday life. If it wasn't for Bruegel our knowledge about the ordinary people might have been lost forever. The man depicted their seasonal activities, feasts, work, proverbs, sayings, children's games,... and even minority groups like blind and crippled people.

Art historians have also revalued Bruegel as an artist. On first glance the peasants on his paintings seem to be ugly, almost caricatural depictions of primitive countryfolks. But actually everything has been painted with the greatest eye for realism and detail. Bruegel's landscapes and crowd scenes in particular always keep your attention and often overshadow the actual topic of the paintings. His work shows a universal love for nature and the simple country life without romanticizing it.

The art of Pieter Bruegel provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation:
    • His name was lent to a Belgian beer brand called "Bruegel Ancienne".
    • The eponym "Bruegelian" is often used to describe scenes of medieval peasants eating, drinking and feasting.
  • Advertised Extra: Icarus in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is almost hidden. You can only see his leg sticking out of the water in the bottom right corner of the image. None of the other people in the painting seem to notice Icarus falling into the water; in fact, everybody minds his own business.
  • Always a Bigger Fish: One of his drawings is named "The Big Fish Eating The Small Fish".
  • Anachronism Stew: Done intentionally for effect. While many of Brueghel's paintings depict events from The Bible or Classical Mythology, they take place in landscapes clearly defined by early modern reality, with characters dressed in clothing and carrying weapons from the 16th century. Brueghel thus represented his themes in a universal manner and made statements about the society he lived in. The fact that the central (biblical or classical) events are often easily overlooked in the huge landscapes only makes this effect stronger.
  • Alone in a Crowd: Lots of crowd scenes, while the actual subject of the painting is often just a lonely, almost overlooked detail.
  • Arcadia: Subverted: Bruegel clearly loved the peasant life, but he didn't romanticize it.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Like every painter in his time Bruegel painted a lot of biblical themes, though always taking place in his own lifetime: "The Massacre Of The Innocents", "The Tower of Babel", "The Fall of the Rebel Angels", "Saul", "Flight To Egypt",...
  • Big Eater: In "Peasant's Wedding" many peasants are enjoying large quantities of food.
  • The Blind Leading the Blind: Bruegel made a painting literally showing illustrating this saying.
  • Call to Agriculture: Bruegel enjoyed the peasant life and reflected the hardships and the fun of the common man.
  • Crapsack World:
    • The painting "The Misantrope" shows an old man being robbed by a child inside a globe, representing universal theft. He claims: "Because the world is so unfair, I mourn in despair."
  • Creator Cameo: The bearded man dressed in black talking with a monk on the far right side of "Peasant's Wedding" is assumed to be a self portrait of Bruegel.
  • Deadpan Snarker: A lot of his art contains both subtle and not-so-subtle digs at politicians, church officials and the rank-and-file troops of the day, alongside the general broadsides at human vagaries, vanities and stupidities — especially if you could decode the Diets or Duits allegories. It's almost amusing so many Spanish and Austrian Hapsburg palaces had a Brueghel (or some copy) or two hanging in them, considering how often he placed veiled digs at their regimes and policies in his works. He was always careful, however, not to cross too many lines and made sure to hide behind either the language barrier or established religious themes: the Inquisition was a very real danger.
  • Dem Bones: "The Triumph Of Death" shows hundreds of skeletons Walking the Earth.
  • Disabled Means Helpless: "The Blind Leading the Blind" shows them all falling into a creek. It is based on a biblical saying, and is to be viewed symbolically.
    • Also the painting "The Beggars" which features four crippled men.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: In a case of What Do You Mean, It's Not Political?, certain scenes in Bruegel's paintings are assumed to be veiled criticism of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands.
  • The Dung Ages: Despite living in the 16th century, when the Middle Ages had already ended, and there were some religious upheavals, Breugel's depictions of Flemish folk life still breathe the living spirit of medieval society, showing everything from the downright fun to the absolutely horrible.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Since he painted so much scenes involving common people he was nicknamed "Peer Den Drol", during his lifetime, which literally means "Pete the Turd".
  • The Everyman: And woman. The focal characters of many of his paintings aren't, on the face of it, anybody special, nor are they particularly heroic even if they are doing daringly stupid-amazing things. Just people being people, warts and all. Helped codify the trope with his output.
  • Funny Background Event: His paintings are full of droll images and you can stare at them for hours and still notice new things.
  • Grotesque Gallery: Though not as grotesque as Hieronymus Bosch he portrayed peasants as quite crude, unflattering not always good looking people. The main difference is that his portrayals are still realistically believable and not fantasies. Thus you actually get to see these people as real peasants as they existed back then and not some romanticized vision.
  • Homage
    • Both W. H. Auden and the rock group Titus Andronicus have written a poem and a song about Bruegel's "Fall Of Icarus".
    • Willy Vandersteen's Suske en Wiske comic strip albums "Het Spaanse Spook" and "De Krimson Crisis" feature a cameo by Bruegel. In "Het Spaanse Spook" the characters travel back in time by entering his painting "Peasant Wedding". Vandersteen's final comic strip series, "De Geuzen", actually took place in the 16th century and at the end of each story a reproduction of one of Bruegel's drawings was reprinted.
    • Flemish singer Wannes Van De Velde wrote two songs about Bruegel: "Pieter Breughel in Brussel" and "Café Breughel".
  • Humans Are Bastards: Bruegel was a moralizer. One painting summarizes this vision best. It shows an old man in black, whose money is stolen by a man inside a globe, symbolizing international evil. The text below the image says: Because the world is so unfair, I mourn in despair.
  • Hurricane of Aphorisms: Bruegel loved devoting entire paintings and drawings to Flemish proverbs and sayings, usually in the form of a Literal Metaphor.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Partly subverted, as Bruegel shows the beauty of Earth's landscapes, but also the negative effects like storms.
  • Level Ate: "The Land of Cockaigne"
  • Literal Metaphor: His paintings of the "Netherlandish Proverbs", "The Blind Leading The Blind", "The Big Fish Eating The Small Fish", "The Peasant And The Nest Robber", "12 Proverbs", "The Magpie On The Gallows" which are all literal depictions of traditional proverbs and sayings.
  • Lower-Class Lout and Medieval Morons: At the time the upper and middle class took delight in Bruegel's unflattering portrayals of the lower classes... thereby often missing many of the critical points of the pieces.
  • Missing Episode: On his death bed Bruegel told his wife to destroy some of his drawings and paintings, because they could cause problems for her if the authorities discovered them. And she did.
  • Nature Lover: Like many other painters Bruegel also made a trip to Italy. Yet he was more interested in the landscapes than the glorious Renaissance art. This love is reflected in the beautiful idyllic backgrounds in most of his art, though they seldom were realistic.
  • Noble Savage: Partly subverted: Bruegel certainly acknowledged their existence in his work during a time when other artists mostly ignored peasants and ordinary people, but he didn't glamorize them, either.
  • Pastiche: Bruegel's early works are stylistically similar to Hieronymus Bosch. The painting "De Dulle Griet" ("Mad Meg") is his most obvious pastiche of Bosch's art. People who see this painting for the first time often immediately assume that it's by Bosch.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • Bruegel's work covers the entire Flemish-Dutch 16th century peasant society, including their seasonal activities, feasts, work, proverbs and sayings, children's games,...
    • The reason Bruegel as well as somewhat later Dutch artists painted a lot of winter scenes is because they lived during the Little Ice Age.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Some scenes are still a mystery to art historians, mostly because they are supposedly based on sayings of the day or allusions to certain, very specific people that have now both fallen into obscurity.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Many of his works have symbolic and/or allegorical images. The Magpie on the Gallows, for instance, isn't just a naturalistic scene: it was based on a Flemish saying that indicated that people who spy and badmouth you will sent you to the gallows.
  • Scenery Gorn and Scenery Porn: The detailed backgrounds often have a more prominent and richly detailed presence than the people who walk through them. Yet even though most of them appear realistically, they were mostly thought up by Bruegel himself.
  • Seasonal Baggage: He made five paintings depicting people and landscapes during various seasons.
  • Secret Art: Certain scenes on Bruegel's paintings and drawings are veiled criticisms of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands.
  • Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Heavenly Virtues: Bruegel made drawings about these themes.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Shown Their Work: Some of Bruegel's paintings of blind people are so accurate that doctors are able to point out the type of blindness from which these people were suffering.
  • Slumming It: Bruegel is said to have disguised himself as a peasant while visiting the countryside. On Peasant Wedding the bearded man in black on the far right is said to be a self portrait.
  • Spell My Name with an S: He signed his name "Brueghel" and/or "Bruegel" at different times in his life. His son's name is subject to the same variation. Spelling was not particularly formalised at that point in history. Other people have also spelled his name as "Breugel" and "Breughel".
  • Spooky Painting: "De Dulle Griet" ("Dull Gret/ Margaret") and "The Triumph Of Death". A less busy, and famous, one is his "De Hexen" ("The Witches") — the whole thing sets you to tingles even before his usual, multi-layered truckload of Fridges hits you.
  • Story Within a Story: His paintings are so full of detail that you can view dozens of little anecdotical scenes taking place.
  • Status Quo Is God: "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" shows Icarus drowning as just a small detail of the painting, while the people around him just carry on with their lives as usual.
  • Toilet Humour: Bruegel's work was often downgraded in his lifetime for being nothing else but bawdy scenes full of ugly peasants. In some scenes on his paintings like the Netherlandish Proverbs and 12 Proverbs people can be seen urinating or defecating in the background.
  • Unintentional Period Piece: Bruegel was able to catch late medieval/early Renaissance society while it was happening. His work offers historians a unique glimpse in the living conditions of the ordinary people at that time about whom we don't know very much compared with the royals and aristocrats. A case in point: close study of his works has answered questions about the evolution of bagpipes and accordions... As well as raised new ones.
  • War Is Hell: The Triumph Of Death portrays skeletons as soldiers too.
  • World of Symbolism: Like many painters of his day Bruegel added a lot of Christian symbolism in his work.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: "The Triumph of Death". Yes, in 1562.