The World of Bruegel c. 1525-1569 by Timothy Foote’45? and the Editors of Time-Life Books. I had always thought of Bruegel as an acolyte of Bosch, and in part he was; but I learned from this book that he was so much more. Timothy Foote says that Bruegel was not a revolutionary but rather a pioneer, building on what had come before and pushing it to new limits. Bosch died a few years before Bruegel was born, and the younger artist found inspiration and liberation in the fantastic images of his predecessor. Bruegel went on to create his own style where landscape, rustic life, small town and agrarian activity, homely proverbs and classic lore all came together to form what Timothy aptly calls “the World of Bruegel.”
Timothy situates Bruegel in the roiling historical context of the Sixteenth Century during which the Reformation and Calvinism, its important offshoot especially in the Netherlands, came into conflict with the Counter Reformation Catholicism of Phillip II, the new and inept ruler who took power when his father, Charles V, abdicated in his favor. Where Bruegel stood in the conflict is not clear from his paintings. Timothy argues that in all likelihood he followed Erasmus and tried to stay out of the fray.
Timothy also contrasts the Renaissance flowering in Italy with this very different northern development. Bruegel must have been fascinated by the work of his Italian counterparts as it is known that he made a trip to Italy.
Though the historic and artistic circumstances are deftly presented, the main focus of the book is the work of Bruegel, his paintings and engravings, described and analyzed and also reproduced, often in color, with accompanying sections enlarged for more detailed scrutiny. This painting is called The Blue Robe. In the center foreground, a wife is putting it on her husband. We learn from the book that this gesture comes from an old proverb which means that she is being unfaithful to him – perhaps this expression is something like our “pulling the wool over someone’s eyes” or “hoodwinking” someone. We then discover that the painting is chock full of proverbs and expressions brought to life. In his chapter “A Panoply of Proverbs,” Timothy points out 78 such proverbs in this one painting! “Tarts on the roof,” for instance, means having plenty. Check out the roof. It would be worth a trip to Munich just to see this painting.
Bruegel’s art lost favor for a few centuries and his paintings were not shown. Lucky for us, he’s back.