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Big fish eat small fish

Drawings and illustrations, 1556, 21.6×30.7 cm

Description of the artwork «Big fish eat small fish»

"Big fish eat small ones" (option: “Big fish eats little fish”) is one of the most common images in the work of Peter Brueghel the Elder and one of the artist’s first numerous works based on proverbs.

This is an image of a huge fish pulled ashore, from the mouth of which a lot of medium and small fish drop out. A small figure in a helmet with a huge knife rips open the belly of a large fish, from where even more sea creatures fall out. Earth, air and water seem to be filled with a strange assortment of existing and fantastic water reptiles.

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

This is an adapted form of the ancient Roman proverb, whichengraving on the corresponding drawingdisplayed in capital letters under the image. She speaks of a meaningless world in which the strong instinctively and consistently prey on the weak. The fact that the son understands the lesson is evident from his gesture towards another person in the boat who is extracting a small fish from a larger one.

Peter Brueghel the Elder is considered the most important Dutch illustrator of the 16th century. His drawings, created in the era of political, social and religious transformations, demonstrate a complex world, both real and imaginary. The artist reflects on social conditions in a humorous, down-to-earth, insightful and deeply critical manner, focusing on tragedy and greatness, but at the same time absurd and flimsy of human existence.

The engraving was published 40 years after the start of the Protestant Reformation - a radical break with the Catholic Church, provoked by the German preacher Martin Luther in 1517. His criticism was directed, among other things, to explicit corruption and idolatry in Catholic religious images. One of the practical results of the Reformation was the emergence of new genres of art that were not religious in nature, but included the representation of scenes from everyday life and culture. In this sense, the work “Big fish eat small” is a particularly valuable example.

The brilliant visualization of the saying was first conceived by Brueghel as a drawing, signed by the artist and dated 1556 (now stored in the Albertina Vienna Gallery). However, in the lower left corner of the engraving is not his name, but Jerome Bosch, who died in 1516. The responsibility for this, obviously, lies with the publisher and merchant Jerome Kok, who ordered Bruegel drawings for prints. Being an adroit and enterprising businessman, Kok quickly realized that oil paintings are too expensive and accessible to few, but everyone can afford a good engraving. Finding the witty and technical draftsman in the person of Brueghel, he entrusted him with a cycle about mortal sins - there is always a demand for vice and morality at the same time. Sometimes the publisher stooped to forbidden tricks, for example, signed an engraving in the name of a very popular but long-deceased Bosch, who, naturally, could not make claims.
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About the artwork

Art form: Drawings and illustrations

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

Location: Vlad Maslov

Artwork in selections: 4 selections