Pieter Bruegel the Elder and "Netherlandish Proverbs"
By the late 1400s, the Italian Renaissance interest in reusing classical ideas and valuing life on earth as well as human potential had spread to Northern Europe. As in Italy, wealthy merchant families in Flanders, Belgium, were attracted to the Renaissance emphasis on individualism and worldly pleasures. They were proud to be able to commission portraits of themselves and other works of art.
The Renaissance in Flanders was marked by an interest in realism. Flemish oil painting reached its peak after 1550 in the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He was the most highly acclaimed Low Country master of the sixteenth century. Bruegel's paintings often capture scenes of everyday peasant life: the changing of the seasons, the work process of the harvests, weddings and dances. He also created paintings to illustrate a proverb or moral or to point out a political situation in his country.
This oil painting on a wooden panel was also called "The Blue Cloak" or "The Topsy Turvy World" which refer to the literal renditions of Flemish proverbs of the day. Brueghel's paintings often had themes of the absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of mankind and this one is quite a study of human stupidity.
There are around 100 identifiable idioms in the scene and some are still in use today. The title, "The Blue Cloak", comes from "She puts the blue cloak on her husband" which means she deceives him. In the lower center of the painting is a woman in a red dress putting a blue cloak on her husband which indicates that she was cuckolding him."To bang one's head against a brick wall" and "One foot shod, the other bare" are illustrated by the man with a sword to our lower left who is pressing his head against the brick wall and wearing only one shoe. He is trying to achieve the impossible in pushing against a brick wall and his balance for the effort is very important.
Some of the sayings are familiar but perhaps not identical to the modern English usage such as "casting roses before swine". Directly to our right from the woman putting the blue cloak on her husband stands a man dressed in a brown tunic who is dropping flowers among the pigs. This action indicates wasting effort on the unworthy. Many more have faded from use or never been used in English such as "having one's roof tiled with tarts" which means to be very wealthy or to have an abundance of everything. Tarts or pies are shown on the steep roof to our upper left in the painting.
Other proverbs indicate man's foolishness, for example, just above the central figure of the blue-cloaked man another man carries daylight in a basket. "To carry the day out in baskets" meant to waste one's time. Some of the figures seem to represent more than one figure of speech such as the man shearing a sheep just left of the man digging a hole in the low center of the painting. Since he is next to a man shearing a pig, the expression "one shears sheep and one shears pigs" may be illustrated or perhaps "shear them but don't skin them". The first means that one has advantage over the other while the second means make the most of your assets.
Many of the people in the painting have the blank features which Brueghel used to portray fools. His son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, specialized in making copies of his father's work and painted as many as twenty copies of "Netherlandish Proverbs". Not all versions of the painting by either artist show exactly the same proverbs and they differ in other details.
This theme provides the artist an opportunity to compose complicated groupings of bodies in vigorous action. The distant landscape and soft flowing river with a boat provide a contrast to the busy scene Brueghel's meticulous attention to detail and realism pulls us into the daily life in Flanders. We experience a glimpse into Renaissance history with the figures dressed in accurate historical outfits and the landscape details varying in design. His use of the technique of diminishing size perspective creates a sense of space. The figures and animals in the foreground are the largest images. As the size of all images gets smaller, we accept the illusion of depth. Bruegel's use of color also helps to create a sense of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface.
The strong diagonal placement of the houses to our left and the water flowing toward the upper right pull our eyes back into space. The repeated use of red, orange, gold and brown captures our attention and forces us to really search the scene, to become involved in the peoples' actions. Small areas of yellow, golden brown and gray in the clothing make the figures distinguishable one from another. The size, placement and design of the trees add to the sense of space. In all his work, Brueghel's rich colors, vivid details and balanced use of space give a sense of life, feeling and movement.
He was extremely skillful in portraying large numbers of figures engaged in action. Simple human activities and ordinary landscapes received extreme importance and dignity in Brueghel's paintings. Humans and nature are bound together as a working unit. He produced many paintings and inspired two sons and three grandsons to become painters.
This essay draws on factual information regarding Pieter Bruegel and his work taken from "World History, Patterns of Interaction" published by McDougall Littell, a division of Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003 and from Discovering Art History by Davis Publications, 1997. The image of the painting can be found at www.abcgallery.com, Olga's Gallery.