Peasant Bruegel: An appreciation of the Dutch realist painter
"The Wedding Dance." by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Photograph of public domain work of art.

The greatest of the 16th-century Dutch realists is without doubt Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Born around 1525, Bruegel died 450 years ago, on September 5, 1569. His lifetime coincides with the Netherlands’ struggle against Spanish domination. The Netherlands, which at that time included the territory of the present Netherlands as well as Belgium, Luxembourg, and part of northern France, belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and was dominated by the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs. In Bruegel’s lifetime, we see an escalation of the Inquisition, persecution of Protestants, and Calvinist iconoclasm.

Bruegel was the first of a large family of painters. He became known as “Peasant Bruegel” owing to one of the main features of his work, the centrality of the Dutch peasantry. However, his art reflects Dutch reality in many more ways. Not only did it draw inspiration from popular expressions and proverbs and put the people of the Netherlands at its center, his paintings for that very reason contain many hidden attacks on Spanish domination. In this way, works such as The Procession to Calvary, Census at Bethlehem, The Massacre of the Innocent and many others, sometimes cloaked in religious guise, helped to prepare the Dutch Revolution by putting on canvas the realities of the ordinary people and thereby supporting the Dutch quest for independence.

The Procession to Calvary – detail

In The Procession to Calvary, Jesus is wearing the same blue clothes as the peasants, who are coming to his aid, both women and men. The red-coated mercenaries, all on horseback, are clearly depicted as their common enemy.

Domination of the Dutch peasantry by the Spanish oppressor is also very apparent in the two paintings Census at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocent. Both are set in freezing landscapes. Both carry a political comment about the Dutch/Flemish under this Habsburg branch of the Holy Roman Empire. In Census at Bethlehem, the people clearly suffer from the financial and military yoke of the foreign power. They queue to register and to pay taxes to the Empire. Tellingly, the tax collectors sit next to the Habsburg coat of arms (a black eagle on a golden shield), painted on the wall beside the window. Mary and Joseph are shown heading towards the tax collectors. They too are depicted as Dutch people in subjugation.

The Census at Bethlehem

Bruegel’s sequence on the seasons has their roots in the Book of Hours, but they have come a long way. These paintings mastered seasonal atmospheric values of nature for the first time, and organically integrated the ordinary working people into the landscape. In his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow, the hunters and their dogs return from work. They are bent over with tiredness, on their way home to the village. In this painting, Bruegel’s training as a miniature artist is spectacularly clear in the amount of life going on in the distance. The viewer sees the expansive landscape through the hunters’ eyes, following their footsteps across the snow-covered ridge. Villagers skate, a woman crosses a bridge carrying brushwood. Even a chimney fire can be detected in the village’s farthest cottage, with villagers working hard to extinguish it. Icy cold blows towards the observer and one senses the shelter that the huts offer their inhabitants.

Hunters in the Snow

Bruegel celebrated the deep-seated traditions of Dutch culture, highlighting the threat by Catholic Spain’s King Philip II. Most famous of all are of course Bruegel’s depictions of peasant life, as for example The Wedding Dance. This very this-worldly picture would have been frowned upon by the Church, as it disapproved of dancing and any obvious sensuality and joy in life. At this picture’s center, we see the joined hands of bride and groom dancing in the open air. The bride is the only woman without a white scarf and the working women’s apron, her red hair is loose, she is wearing a black dress (white dresses only became fashionable in the 19th century). The entire village is invited and it is a joyous community occasion. The dynamic movement within the picture is stunning, expressing the peoples’ enormous energy, and one can easily imagine the bagpipe music. Aside from the dancing, there is sexual freedom among the villagers, too. The bagpipe itself is a sexual symbol, apart from it being a folk music instrument. The unrestrained enjoyment of life, the energy, the dancing, music, and sexual freedom are all a clear statement of resistance to the political and religious control of the Dutch people.

Bruegel captured his time from the point of view of the subjugated people in a remarkable and realistic, humane way. His art represents the early stages, the progressive, indeed revolutionary, element of bourgeois realism. For this reason, viewers today can easily understand and identify with Bruegel’s partisanship with the ordinary, exploited and oppressed folk, and their rebellion against their condition.


Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer and writer living in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is an associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.