The greatest Netherlandish painter and draughtsman of the 16th cent. There is very little documentary evidence concerning his career, but van Mander's laudatory biography, published in 1604, is a useful source of information, even though it misleadingly projects an image of Bruegel as above all else a comic painter. Far from being the yokel of popular tradition--'Peasant Bruegel'--he seems to have been a man of some culture, as is indicated by his friendship with the great geographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-98). He joined the Antwerp Guild in 1551, having been the pupil of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who died in 1550 and whose daughter Bruegel later married. Between 1551 and 1553 he made a prolonged journey via France to Italy, where he travelled as far south as Naples and Sicily. In Rome he collaborated with the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, who owned a number of Bruegel works that are now lost. On his return journey through the Alps he made accurate and extremely sensitive landscape drawings; the experience of the Alps affected him much more than the example of any art he had seen in Italy. Back in Antwerp he designed a series of landscapes which were engraved and published by Hieronymous Cock, for whom Bruegel produced many drawings of various subjects, including parables like 'the Bit Fish eat Little Fish'. The engraving after Bruegel's drawing of this subject (published in 1557), is inscribed 'Hieronymus Bos Inventor', an attempt by Cock to cash in on the continued popularity of Bosch, who influenced Bruegel considerably.
A drawing of Amsterdam dated 1562 probably indicates a visit there before his move to Brussels in 1563. where he married in that year. From this time until his death he concentrated on painting and produced his best-known works. His patrons included Cardinal Granvella, chief counsellor to Margaret of Parma (1522-86), Philip II's regent in the Netherlands, and the wealthy banker Niclaes Jonghelinck, who in 1565 commissioned the series of The Months , of which five survive today. Three of these (including the celebrated Hunters in the Snow ) are in the remarkable collection of fourteen paintings by Bruegel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, which comprises nearly one-third of his surviving paintings; the other two are in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the National Gallery, Prague. His style changed during the last six years of his life in Brussels; he abandoned the crowded panoramas of his earlier years, making his figures bigger and bolder, as is seen most notably in his novel treatment of proverbs, a genre that had previously been of minor account ( The Blind Leading the Blind , Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, 1568). Bruegel enjoyed a considerable reputation in his lifetime, and his pictorial and spiritual influence through his original works and the many prints after them in later Flemish painting, whether landscape of genre, is incalculable. It is only in the 20th cent., however, that he has come to be recognized also as a profound religious painter and an artist whose human sympathy and understanding has hardly been excelled. His brilliance as a craftsman is also universally acknowledged; his technique was precise yet always fluent, with the paint often thinly applied giving transparency to a superb variety of colour. Bruegel's two painter sons were infants when he died and so had no training from him (they were reputedly taught by their grandmother--the widow of Pieter Coecke--Mayken Verhulst). They both spelled their surname 'Brueghel', retaining the 'h' that their father had dropped in 1559.
[Chilvers, Ian, Harold Osborne, and Dennis Farr, eds. Oxford Dictionary Of Art. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.]
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