Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)

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.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), oil on oak panel

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!

11 thoughts on “Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)

  1. This painting is intimidating if you are a visual artist. The amount of skill required is staggering. Panned out it can be seen as an abstract composition. In other words, out mid-last century abstract artists didn’t add so much to art history as take things out of it, delivering less as more.

    I wonder about the world view of Bosch and Bruegel. The curious thing is this sort of compulsion to portray a great many tiny people in a vast landscape: to see people from a bird’s eye, Gog-like perspective. People become players in a vast drama as seen from the balcony seat.

    As fabulous as it is I recognize that I prefer more intimate images. If you zoom in they are there, sort of. But her I don’t want to make the painting conform to my way of seeing things, but rather to see it more as the artist did and intended it to be seen. It’s an astounding document filled with information. One could learn as much from this painting as from reading a score of literary books from the period.

    I often play a sort of mental game when looking at art, which is to wonder how an alien species would appreciate it if they discovered it. This would be highly prized. It tells about the society, the artist, aesthetics, everything in-between, and then the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Compare that to the aliens discovering a Pollock (I’m a fan, but there’s just not nearly as much there), a Ryman, a Koons, a Lawrence Wiener or a Martin Creed. They wouldn’t even bother beaming up those artifacts. They leave Duchamp’s urinal with other plumbing structures. This one would bring the mother ship’s attention.

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    1. It’s quite intimidating for us humble viewers to look at it too. Most of all, I get this sense that I’m able to travel back in time and take in so much of their culture. This would pass the aliens’ test with flying colors. It says so much about our values, fears, desires and what would have been the “perils” of society.

      I guess there is a sense of abstraction in the overview. I was seeing them as surreal or … fantastic, at any rate, because they build whole worlds from scratch.

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  2. Paintings like this are wonderful for History Teachers to show a class of teenagers as there is so much human activity in it. So valuable for Social Historians because it gives a visual representation of the people who only ever appears in tax records or court cases, nor diaries or letters.

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    1. It’s like an anthropological study. I wish I could see this more from contemporary artists too. Not necessarily that intricate – it takes genius for that! – but something we can look back at decades from now and say: “ah, yes, that’s how life was then”.

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  3. I find it intriguing that Bruegel’s way of doubling down on the woman with the blue cloak was painting her in red, supposedly the color of sin . Perhaps this was to remove the social stigma of a cheating wife from the husband and putting the shame on the woman. Well, that is just my interpretation. The painting is very nice but the imagery comes to life with your commentary. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. The man looks quite ridiculous with his blue cloak, so I don’t think Bruegel is necessarily sexist here. If anything, he dressed the woman quite hot! 😉 I think he just wants to let us know that she is being unfaithful.

      You do raise a valid point, in that the husband is often ridiculed too, called “cuckolded” in mockery. I get the sense that here he doesn’t escape Bruegel’s irony either.

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