With his keen understanding of the human condition and his appreciation for nature, Pieter Bruegel the Elder captured the daily life of peasants with satire, humor and sympathy. Although he was less moralizing and more anchored in reality, you can still notice Hieronymus Bosch’s influence in his art. Bruegel died young, when he was around 40 years old, but his legacy is everlasting, having shaped generations of Dutch and Flemish artists.
While some would argue that a painting is painted poetry, with Netherlandish Proverbs Bruegel shows us how an essential element of folk culture – proverbs – literally translates into visual art. Thanks to a bird-eye’s view, we get a glimpse of a Netherlandish village portrayed as a madhouse, where every element is carefully placed as part of a larger narrative.
The painting was initially titled Blue Cloak. This came from the woman in red in the center of the painting putting a blue cloak on the man before her. The Netherlandish expression this alludes to (she puts the blue cloak on her husband) suggests that the woman is cheating on her spouse, and Bruegel doubles down on the symbolism by dressing her in red, the color of sin.
It is one of Bruegel’s most complex and humorous paintings, including references to up to 126 proverbs, by some estimates, and it gives us a sharp insight into the Netherlandish society of the 16th century. You can click here to see how the proverbs apply to the painting. What is most fascinating is how some of these sayings and their imagery are relatable across cultures and not restricted to the specific time and place that Bruegel depicted. Peasants, clerics and the wealthy alike, they are all being ridiculed for their folly and their lack of virtue. Even when the proverbs seem to highlight positive or neutral traits (by today’s standards), the imagery is just as ridiculous. May we all have our roofs tiled with tarts!