The Brueghels. A guide to the dynasty.
A Bruegel can be quickly spotted as a Bruegel, but which Bruegel? Even the seasoned experts admit that it is sometimes difficult for them to make head or tail of the works and family ties within this dynasty without looking up their family tree. Six artists sharing the same surname have been creating paintings for 150 years. They copied each other’s works and signed them with each other’s names so that sometimes it is difficult to know if a Bruegel is an original Bruegel, or a Brueghel’s copy of an original Bruegel.
Moreover, they all spelled the surname differently: some were Bruegel, some Breughel, others Brueghel. They also collaborated with other artists, so that sometimes it was difficult to know when to call a Bruegel a Bruegel, and when to call it a Rubens. They were also closely related to a number of other Netherlandish artists' families, which complicates matters even further. And they had funny nicknames: Peasant Bruegel, Velvet Brueghel, Hell Breughel…
This family is as colorful and diverse as the subjects of the painting Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Among the great artist family dynasties the Breughels remain the most charming, and the most confusing.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and The Buyer (the painter is thought to be a self-portrait), ca 1566. The Albertina, Vienna
It all started with Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525/30 — 1569) who, until 1559, spelled his name Brueghel; thereafter, Bruegel (his sons spelled it the old way).
Around 1545, the exceptionally talented artist came to Antwerp and was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who used to be a court painter to Charles V. The painter also became his apprentice’s father-in-law, thus ensuring his best student continued his business.
Bruegel later travelled to Italy and absorbed the influence of the Renaissance, but on his return adapted his vision to the Dutch culture of the Low Countries.
Bruegel’s early style was reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch
— indeed he was referred to at the time as "the new Hieronymous Bosch", but like any great artist he didn’t want to be another anybody,
he wanted to be a somebody. And so his style gradually became his own: figures in a landscape,
fat-headed men and women dancing,
visual interpretations of the parables. These works are full of subversive references to poetry,
little is known about Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His penchant for depicting peasant and urban life (
instead of historical,
or mythological scenes) eventually earned him the nickname of "peasant Bruegel." Karel van Mander
, the Vasari
of the North,
who was a biographer of northern European painters of the 15−16th centuries,
believed that Bruegel could paint peasants only because he himself was born into a peasant family.
However, contemporary art critics claim that van Mander came up with this image of Bruegel, drawing on his works: if he painted peasants — he was a peasant himself. Now experts suspect that Bruegel could well have been born in the family of an artist in Antwerp. It is unlikely that a young peasant would be accepted into the Guild of Saint Luke: it was very difficult for an outsider to enter the circle of painters and create a workshop.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder died at about age 45, and about 45 of his paintings have survived to this day. At the time of the artist’s death, his sons — Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder (the latter so called because his own son, Jan the Younger, was later named after him) — were five and one year old respectively, yet both became incredibly successful artists. There are various theories about who taught them. The most interesting one states that it was Mayken Verhulst, their grandmother, Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s wife, who herself was a famous miniaturist.
Famous works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Pieter Brueghel the Younger (early 17th century). The Frick Collection, New York
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564/5 — 1637/8) inherited the family business and painted repetitions of his father’s most famous pictures. For example, there are more than 40 copies of The Bird Trap recorded by him. Pieter Brueghel the Younger lived into his seventies and produced almost 1,000 known paintings in total. He got his nickname "Hell" Breughel for his earlier interest in the scenes of the Last Judgment, hell and evil. Later, the artist moved away from these subjects, but the label stuck with him for centuries.
As his career progressed, he increasingly produced his own original compositions, further developing peasant subjects and landscapes and often including subversive elements. One of his best original compositions, The Bad Shepherd is an ambivalent version of the famous Bible story — you sympathize with the faithless shepherd for deserting his post, even though you’re not supposed to.
In his work The Netherlandish Proverbs, based on his father’s 1559 composition of the same name, Pieter Brueghel the Younger has represented the performance of over 100 proverbs, some of which (such as ‘tiling one’s roof with tarts') have faded from use over the centuries.
However, when comparing the paintings by the father and the son, you can see that Pieter Bruegel the Elder wielded the finer brush and provided greater detail. The differences are clearly visible, for example, in the monumental versions of the Tower of Babel by the parent and his child. But some discrepancies between their Fights Between Carnival and Lent can be explained by the fact that Pieter Brueghel the Younger never saw the original painting. He created a reproduction using the sketches preserved in the family, and therefore used other colors and added some details that the Elder painted over. For example, a corpse in a cart — an image that the Peasant Bruegel probably considered too cruel.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Tower of Babel (ca. 1563). Museum of Art History, Vienna
Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The Tower of Babel (1604). Private collection
But a comparison of the works by two brothers — Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan — shows that they often took paintings by their father, retaining their basic composition but adding different backgrounds.
Pieter the Younger’s huge output also gives a good idea of works painted, or perhaps only planned, by his father that have since disappeared. Because he rarely veered far from reproductions, however, Pieter the Younger is today considered a lesser master than his brother.
Famous works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1613). The Courtauld Institute of Art, London
If Pieter Brueghel the Younger is the responsible son, Jan Breughel the Elder (1568 — 1625) is the rebel. He went to Italy for almost seven years and befriended many leading artists, including his subsequent collaborator, Peter Paul Rubens (sets of paintings The Four Elements and The Five Senses). Rubens called Jan Brueghel the Elder his brother and definitely influenced the artist, who moved quickly away from realistic peasant scenes to imaginary landscapes of forests and mountains inhabited by allegorical figures. Often in biblical scenes, the landscape was, if not the main theme of the canvas, then its equal subject.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Wooded from 1610 highlights his skill for painting landscapes and panoramic vistas. It is one of the largest works the artist ever executed on copper, which gives the paint a luminous quality. The painting dates back to the period when the artist, nicknamed "Velvet" (due to his flawless technique of creating detailed landscapes) served at the court of Albert VII, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Isabella, who reigned over the Hapsburg Netherlands as co-sovereigns.
When depicting village life, Jan Breughel the Elder liked to include wealthier members of society, like himself, along with peasants. In his painting Figures Dancing on the Bank of a River with a Fish-seller, with a Portrait of the Artist in the Foreground, the painter is presented to the viewer not as an artisan, but as an intellectual, thinking creator.
Jan Brueghel the Elder was one of the first painters of still lifes, a genre that was unknown at the time. He probably inherited that ability to create incredible detail on a small scale from his father or a grandmother. The artist sought to depict the wealth of color and texture in each of his works, frequently adding a fly on a leaf as if to suggest that he had captured a specific moment. Due to the patronage of the Archduchess, the Velvet Bruegel had access to the royal greenhouses, where they grew up rare plants. He painted them from nature and often had to wait for a long time for a certain flower to come into blossom. That’s why Jan the Elder got another nickname — "Flower".
The detailed depiction of plants and trees correlated with the teachings of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands during the Counter-Reformation period. It stated that the world around us is a reflection of God. Working out the details of the with an almost scientific scrupulousness, the artist seemed to be getting closer to knowing the Almighty and evaluating all the elements of Creation.
Jan Breughel the Elder. Vase of Flowers with Jewellery, Coins and Shells (1606). Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan
Jan Breughel the Elder. Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase (1625). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Jan Breughel the Elder made another change to the spelling of his last name by swapping the letters e and u. It is now used to denote the younger members of this dynasty.
The artist died of cholera, which also claimed his three children. Only his firstborn and pupil, Jan Breughel the Younger, survived.
Famous works by Jan Brueghel the Elder
Younger members of the family
In the third generation of the Brueghel family,
the talent of the founder of the dynasty began to disperse. Jan Breughel the Younger (1601 — 1678), the son of the "Velvet" Brueghel
, was in Italy when he received news of his father’s death. He immediately returned to his homeland to lead the workshop,
and got a reputable position in the Guild of Saint Luke,
becoming its dean in 1630.
Throughout his career, Jan the Younger followed in his father’s footsteps, creating (possibly along with his stepbrother Ambrosius) landscapes, still lifes, allegorical scenes and other works of meticulous detail. Sometimes he copied works by his father and sold them with his father’s signature. And although his own works — especially large-scale landscapes — are fantastic, such copying, as well as the number of pupils and assistants, who also made those copies, causes confusion when it comes to his legacy. Jan the Younger’s work is distinguishable from that of Jan the Elder by being less well executed and lighter.
Jan Breughel the Younger’s children — Jan Pieter Breughel and Jan Baptist Breughel,
as well as his nephew Pieter Brueghel III (the son of Pieter "Hell" Brueghel)
— are almost completely unknown. Nowadays,
the latter is credited with two works — St. Ignatius Praying
and Carrying the Cross
The only exception is the second son of Jan Breughel the Younger
— recognized master of still lifes Abraham Breughel
. He also began learning from his father and sold his first painting at the age of 15. A decade later,
the young man went to Italy,
where he got married and stayed until the end of his life. His patron was Prince Antonio Ruffo from Sicily; in 1695,
historiograph Andrea Petrucci put Abraham Brueghel on the list of the best painters of Naples.
The non-Breughel members of the dynasty
Art historians also consider several Flemish artists whose last name wasn’t Breughel to be part of the famous dynasty (
due to their marriage bonds with family members). The most famous and talented of them was David Teniers the Younger (1610 — 1690), the husband of Anna Brueghel, the daughter of Jan "Velvet" Breughel
. Thanks to this marriage,
the artist got not only a nice dowry,
but also friendship and patronage of Rubens,
whose influence is very noticeable in his landscapes.
David Teniers the Younger, A Family Concert on the Terrace of a Country House: A self-portrait of the artist with his family (1640s). Private collection
The patronage of his father-in-law and best friend was definitely instrumental in Teniers the Younger’s career. At the age of 34, he became a dean of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke and was popular with European rulers. In particular, he was court painter and the curator of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, the Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands, and also created paintings commissioned by Philip IV of Spain, Christina, Queen of Sweden, William II, Prince of Orange and members of the royal families.
At the peak of his career, David Teniers the Younger painted detailed idyllic scenes of peasant life, religious compositions in the genre spirit and portraits with hidden irony. In the 18th century, the plots of his canvases were often reproduced on French tapestries.
David Teniers III (1638 — 1685), the son of David Teniers the Younger, was a descendant of two significant artistic dynasties, the grandson of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (the Peasant Bruegel) and David Teniers the Elder.
In 1661 he went to Madrid, where he proved his worth as a designer of cartoons for tapestries and as a portrait painter. Upon his return to Antwerp, the artist worked in his father’s workshop, but quarreled with him over his share in the payments received for some of their collaborative works.
Tapestry Bowls Players (made on the by David Teniers III) in the Château de Cheverny in France. Source: Wikipedia
The founder of the second side branch of the Brueghel dynasty is Hieronymus van Kessel (
1578 -1636), who is remarkable only because he was the husband of Paschasia Brueghel (
daughter of the "Velvet" Jan), father of Jan van Kessel the Elder and grandfather of Ferdinand and Jan van Kessel the Younger.
His son Jan van Kessel the Elder (
1626 — 1679) painted elaborate,
detailed and colorful images of birds,
mythological and religious subjects,
landscapes and mediocre portraits. Some of the artist’s paintings are in Paris and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. The works of this master are quite difficult to identify because of the confusion with the namesake artists who worked at the same time.
His children Jan van Kessel the Younger (
1654 — 1708) and Ferdinand van Kessel (
1648 — 1696) also left a distinctive mark on the history of art. The first served as court painter of the Spanish kings in Madrid and became famous as a portrait painter,
very close in style to his compatriot Anthony van Dyck
although did not reach his father’s level,
became famous due to the fact that after the death of his great-uncle Jan Breughel the Younger he was the only artist in Antwerp who continued the tradition of the Brueghel-Kessel house. He painted landscapes,
genre scenes with monkeys,
and also took commissions from the Polish king Jan III Sobieski and William III,
Prince of Orange.
The output of the Brueghel dynasty is so vivid and recognizable that across the years they have influenced other artists and inspired not only their colleagues,
but also such famous creators as Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (Arthive has an article about it
), English-American poet Wystan Hugh Auden and even British singer,
artist and actor David Bowie.