"... the boy a frolic courage caught
To fly at random ..."
- Metamorphosis by Ovid, translated by Arthur Golding (1567)
It seems that the most famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder was actually made by his son Pieter the Younger after an original that has been lost. Another piece of received wisdom bites the dust. When Jan Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding (1434) was recently revealed to be something more like a memento mori of the Tuscan merchant's dead wife (in childbirth?) with his riches, another one became inoperational. These early Netherlandish artists can still mystify us from half a millennium away.
This and more is the subject of a book Short Life in a s Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels by an Englishman, Toby Ferris. Ferris was 42 when he embarked on a plan to go and see all 42 paintings that have survived by the Renaissance artist Bruegel the Elder. Nineteen countries and three American cities later he had encountered them all. Interwoven into his art criticism are memories of Ferris's late father, an engineer who died in 2009. There was scant documentation of the senior Ferris's life, as Toby Ferris would discover about Bruegel's, all that was left was "only the vivid remnant flesh of the paintings and drawings and engravings."
Ferris organizes the paintings not by date or location but by common themes such as cold, crowds, fires, home. He introduces The Fall of Icarus by recounting how he had once picked up a paraglider who had landed on a grassy hill. Bruegel's world is both familiar and strange. His paintings contain familiar characters - beggars, bee-keepers, children at play, drunkards, farmers, and census takers; it is from the materials of their world that strangeness emanates.
Bruegel is one of the great artists of winter, he lived during a time of hard winters known as the Little Ice Age. How hard were the winters as portrayed in Hunters in the Snow? Birds dropped out of trees like blocks of ice and in Antwerp the River Scheldt, deep enough to sail an ocean-going ship, froze solidly. Bruegel shows us the hunters returning from what looks like an unproductive hunt, followed by their tired and dejected dogs. Look up and to their left and you will observe the women preparing to smoke and preserve the family pig, needed now to feed the village through the lean months ahead. Meanwhile the skaters trace their rounds on rinks cleared on the frozen river. And because painting is a spatial medium, we marvel at the seeming casualness of Bruegel's choreography, the placement of human and animal figures is never shambolic.
Although he grew up in a peasant family in the commercial Antwerp Breugel's success enabled him to move to the capital of Brussels where he attracted royal patrons. He died in his mid-forties in 1569, a short life by our measure but prodigious in its output.
The interweaving of personal experience and the experience of encountering a work of art is unique to each person but that hardly makes it irrelevant although some art historians dismiss it as such. Similarly, the New Critics of mid-20th century American poetry decreed each poem is an island unto itself, not to be contaminated by biograph or history.
The subtitle Short Life in a Strange World notes that Bruegel worked on wood panels rather than the more expensive medium of canvas. But there were other distinctions to be made. Wood tends to warp as it dries, shrinking and cracking unevenly. Bruegel knew the reasons why northern builders favored oak or walnut over lime or pine. As he assessed the knots and grains he would have known that unpredictable shifts and alterations that would transform his works after he was gone.
Breigel's sophisticated use of imprimatura (an undercoating that prepares the panel for the layering of colors) was a souvenir of his time in Italy. He experimented as he went along, creating subtle effects, not easily seen in reproduction. He smudges tacky paint with his fingers, he scraped paint with the pointed end of the brush to simulate the appearance of textured fabrics. And his collection of brushes contained the fur of various small animals with coarse hog bristles for the underpainting.
Toby Ferris is the creator of the website Anatomy of Norbitron, devoted to "essays on suburban life and universal failure as seen through the lens of Renaissance art" so this, his first book, follows a longstanding preoccupation.
Short Life in a s Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels by Toby Ferris, New York, HarperCollins: 2020.
1. after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, probably by Pieter Bruegl the Younger, The Fall of Icarus, oil on panel, circa 1550, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
2. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.