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Pieter Bruegel , usually known as Pieter Bruegel the Elder to distinguish him from his elder son, was the first in a family of Flemish painters. He spelled his name Brueghel until 1559, and his sons retained the "h" in the spelling of their names.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, generally considered the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century, is by far the most important member of the family. He was probably born 1529, in Breda in the Duchy of Brabant, now in The Netherlands. He was accepted as a master in the Antwerp painters' guild in 1551, and was apprenticed to Coecke van Aelst, a leading Antwerp artist, sculptor, architect, and designer of tapestry and stained glass. Bruegel traveled to Italy in 1551 or 1552, completing a number of paintings, mostly landscapes, there.
Returning home in 1553, he settled in Antwerp. Ten years later, Bruegel moved permanently to Brussels. He married van Aelst's daughter, Mayken, in 1563. His association with the van Aelst family drew Bruegel to the artistic traditions of the Mechelen region in which allegorical and peasant themes run strongly. Dated paintings have survived from each year of the period except for 1558 and 1561. Within this decade falls Bruegel's marriage to Mayken Coecke in the Church of Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels. His paintings, including his landscapes and scenes of peasant life, stress the absurd and vulgar, yet are full of zest and fine detail. They also expose human weaknesses and follies.
He was sometimes called the "peasant Bruegel" from such works as Peasant Wedding Feast (1567). It was in Rome, in 1553, that Bruegel produced his earliest signed and dated painting, Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias. The holy figures in this painting were probably done by Maarten de Vos, a painter from Antwerp then working in Italy. Among his patrons was Cardinal Antione Perrenot de Granvelle.
Granville was president of the council of state in the Netherlands, in whose palace in Brussels the sculptor Jacques Jonghelinck had a studio. He and Bruegel had traveled in Italy at the same time, and his brother, a rich Antwerp collector, Niclaes, was Bruegel's greatest patron, having by 1566 acquired sixteen of his paintings. Another patron was Abraham Ortelius, who in a memorable obituary called Bruegel the most perfect artist of the century.
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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 show the changing moods and the qualities of nature. These same characteristics appear in his later landscape paintings, such as Hunters in the Snow and Magpie on the Gallows . 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 strange 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) belong to this category. 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). All are marked by a perceptive observation of human nature, a pervasive wit, and the vitality of Bruegel's peasant figures. One example is The Alchemist, a satire on foolish learning as well as greed, designed by Bruegel for Cock in the same year as the worldly series of Seven Virtues. Later examples of peasant folk subjects include Peasant Kermis.
Modern scholars are far from interpreting Bruegel's art as simple, whimsical folk subjects painted by an artist from mere peasant stock, as 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 Abraham Ortelius.
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.
Peter Bruegel began a dynasty of Flemish artists bearing his name. Pieter Brueghel the Younger was the elder of two sons born just a few years before their father's death. Known as "Hell Brueghel" because of his fascination with hobgoblins, fires, and grotesque figures, he made his career in Antwerp, where he became a master in the guild in 1585. He is best known as a copyist of his father's paintings, as they were both popular and scarce. In his own canvases, such as Village Fair and The Crucifixion, he shows a firm grasp of space and movement. He died in 1638. His son, Pieter Brueghel III (1589-?1640), was also known primarily as a copyist.
Jan Brueghel was born in 1568 and became known as the "velvet Brueghel". Jan was the second son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and, like his brother Pieter Brueghel the Younger, made his career in Antwerp. Known for his still lifes of flowers and for his landscapes, he was a friend of Peter Paul Rubens and collaborated with him in paintings such as Adam and Eve in Paradise. He specialized in small wooded scenes that were finely finished and brightly colored. He died in 1625, but his style was followed by his sons. Jan Brueghel II was born in 1601 and died in 1678. Ambrosius Brueghel was born in 1617 and died in 1675. Their sons carried on the tradition until the Eighteenth Century.
Although little is known about the life of Peter Bruegel, The Elder, one thing is clear: he developed an original style that uniformly holds narrative, or story-telling, meaning. In subject matter he ranged widely, from conventional Biblical scenes and parables of Christ to such mythological portrayals as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; religious allegories in the style of Hieronymus Bosch; and social satires. But it was in nature that he found his greatest inspiration. His mountain landscapes have few parallels in European art. Popular in his own day, his works have remained consistently popular. Bruegel died in Brussels between Sept. 5 and 9, 1569.