The Brueghels. A guide to the dynasty.
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
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.
However, little is known about Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His penchant for depicting peasant and urban life (instead of historical, biblical, 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.
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.
- 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
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.
Jan Breughel the Elder
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.
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.
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
- 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
The artist died of cholera, which also claimed his three children. Only his firstborn and pupil, Jan Breughel the Younger, survived.
Younger members of the familyIn 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.
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 dynastyArt 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.
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.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
His son Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626 — 1679) painted elaborate, detailed and colorful images of birds, flowers, 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.
Ferdinand, 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, still lifes, genre scenes with monkeys, and also took commissions from the Polish king Jan III Sobieski and William III, Prince of Orange.