Big fish eat small fish

Pieter Bruegel The Elder • Drawings and illustrations, 1556, 21.6×30.7 cm
$54.00
Digital copy: 935.3 kB
2118 × 1504 px • JPEG
30.7 × 21.6 cm • 175 dpi
35.9 × 25.5 cm • 150 dpi
17.9 × 12.7 cm • 300 dpi
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About the artwork
Subject and objects: Animalism, Allegorical scene
Style of art: Northern Renaissance
Technique: Ink, Feather
Materials: Paper
Date of creation: 1556
Size: 21.6×30.7 cm
Artwork in selections: 3 selections
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Description of the artwork «Big fish eat small fish»

Big Fish Eat Small Fish is one of the most common images by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and one of the artist’s first numerous works based on proverbs.

This is an image of a huge fish being pulled ashore, with any medium and small fish falling out of its mouth. A small figure in a helmet with a huge knife rips open the belly of a big fish, and more sea creatures fall out from there. Land, air and water seem to be overflowing with a strange assortment of existing and fantastic aquatic reptiles.

In the foreground, a man points to the scene for his son. The meaning of his gesture is conveyed by the inscription below, which reads in Flemish: “Look! Big fish eats small fish. Look, my son, I always knew that big fish eat small ones.”

This is an adapted ancient Roman proverb, which is engraved in capital letters below the image. It reads about the meaningless world in which the strong instinctively and consistently prey on the weak. We see the son understand the lesson, as he addresses his gesture towards another person in the boat, who retrieves small fish from the larger one.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is considered the most important Dutch illustrator of the 16th century. The drawings, which he created in an era of political, social and religious transformation, showcased a complex world that was both real and imaginary. The artist reflects on social conditions in a humorous, pragmatic, insightful and deeply critical way, focusing on the tragedy and greatness, as well as the absurdity and fragility of human existence.

The engraving was published 40 years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, the radical break with the Catholic Church which had been instigated by the German preacher Martin Luther in 1517. His criticism was directed, among other things, at the corruption and idolatry in Catholic religious images. One of the practical results of the Reformation was the emergence of new genres of art, not religious in nature, but presenting scenes from everyday life and culture. In this sense, Big Fish Eat Small Fish is a particularly valuable example.

The brilliant visualization of the saying was first conceived by Bruegel as a signed drawing dated 1556 (now it is kept in the Albertina Gallery in Vienna). However, in the lower left corner of the engraving is not his name, but that of Hieronymus Bosch, who died in 1516. The responsibility for this is obviously taken by the publisher and merchant Hieronymus Kok, who commissioned Bruegel’s drawings for his engravings. Being a clever and enterprising businessman, Kok quickly realized that oil paintings are too expensive and accessible to few, but everyone can afford a good engraving. Having found Bruegel as a witty and technical draftsman, he entrusted him with a cycle about the mortal sins — there was always demand for vices, as well as for morality. Sometimes the publisher stooped to forbidden methods, for example, he signed the engraving with the name of the very popular but long-deceased Bosch, who certainly could not make any claims.


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