In addition to painting, Bruegel created many prints. Partnering with one of the day’s most important publishers, Hieronymus Cock, he produced a series of illustrated proverbs, among other subjects. Many are horrific and monstrous—in Big Fish Eat Little Fish from 1557, a man cuts into the stomach of a giant beached fish while smaller fish pour out of its incision and mouth (and even smaller fish cascade out of their mouths). With Bosch’s devilish verve, Bruegel also rendered the seven deadly sins as landscapes filled with ferocious animals, bestial sex acts, and detached body parts. (His seven virtues are tamer, but still crowded with people.)
In 1604, Karl van Mander wrote the first biography of Bruegel by piecing together anecdotes from people who knew the artist and looking at the paintings, either in person or reproduction. (Bruegel had many Low Country patrons, who may have shown van Mander the work.) The biographer claimed that Bruegel would disguise himself as a peasant to attend local festivities (county fairs, weddings) as a means of developing his subject matter.
“I think you have to take some of these early biographies of artists with a grain of salt,” Orenstein says. This ambiguity has led to divergent theories about just what Bruegel intended when he rendered his often silly scenes of everyday people. Indeed, many of the paintings illustrate then-popular proverbs and folktales
—some more cryptic than others—which would have entertained patrons, keeping them occupied as they sought meaning in each minute detail.
In the 1970s, scholars Svetlana Alpers and Hessel Miedema initiated a long debate about whether Bruegel’s portrayals were meant as positive or negative, humorous or serious. (Miedema proposed that, at the time, the Dutch didn’t really laugh at all.) In the 2006 book Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter, Walter S. Gibson asserts that Bruegel’s aim was comedic: He wanted to make his normally solemn viewers laugh.
Regardless of Bruegel’s intentions, scholars agree on one thing: The paintings were commissioned and purchased by wealthy patrons, not by those represented in them. More interesting than Bruegel’s objectives, perhaps, is just why patrons desired these types of scenes in the first place. “The thing that’s so great about Bruegel is everybody can read things into [his paintings],” Orenstein says. “They’re mysterious and don’t give away a lot of clues.”