Pieter Bruegel the Elder lived from about 1525 to 1569 and spent most of his life in Antwerp. Bruegel’s style and subject matter are often associated with the Middle Ages, in fact, he was a contemporary of Michelangelo and his century was the height of the northern renaissance.
The Renaissance in Bruegel’s native Netherland was different in many aspects from the renaissance in Italy. Bruegel’s body of work embodies many of the northern European tendencies: naturalism, love of detail, a pessimistic view of man, and biting wit.
Most of the Bruegel reproductions and prints emphasise the earthy, rustic aspect of his peasant paintings, the stubby harvesters eating, swilling or cavorting after a day’s hard labour in the fields.
His first biographer, Von Mander wrote in (1604); “There are few works by his hand which the observer can contemplate solemnly and with a straight face.”
The other Bruegel – the Bruegel of visions, allegories and sermons in the paint, lived in the fertile imagination of his mind.
Horror and humour are intermingled together in some of his immensely planned compositions, such as the fabulous Triumph of Death (at Madrid), and his depiction of evil have a nightmarish quality that makes surrealists look tame.
What is always present is the note of the grotesque which seems to tie him to the Flemish tradition of artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and make him the last of the primitives.
However, Bruegel’s art like his life is full of contradictions. He had travelled and worked and lived in Italy in which he was highly regarded. His biographer Mander said, “When he travelled through the Alps that he swallowed all the mountains and the rocks and spat them out again, after his return on to his canvases and panels.”
It was said that while he lived in Antwerp, he shared his house with a servant girl. He would have married her, but for the fact that having a marked distaste for the truth, she was in the habit of lying, a thing he greatly disliked.”