Today’s work of art is by Pieter Bruegel (the Elder), considered by many to be the greatest Flemish sixteenth-century master. He was born in the Netherlands around 1525 and died in 1569. He was a Renaissance painter who began the Bruegel Dynasty that included six well-known artists. (It was originally spelled Brueghel, but in 1559 he stopped signing his paintings with the “h” in his last name). He was especially known for his landscape paintings that were populated by peasants, and in fact “is often credited as being the first Western painter to paint landscapes for their own sake, rather than as a backdrop for history painting.” Sadly, only 45 of his works survive to the present.
The panoramic landscape show the harvesting of wheat underway, with some of the people in the painting still working and some taking a break, possibly for lunch. Or perhaps they worked in shifts? The man in the red shirt, just to the right of the tall tree that divides the painting is drinking from a large jug, which could be beer. The man in the white shirt, sleeping in front of the same tree, might be sleeping one off, or just tired from working. The man walking out of the wheat field is carrying a similar looking jug and there’s an another one just standing at the edge of the field on the painting’s bottom left. And of course, wheat is a common grain used in brewing.
The Harvesters is believed to represent the months of August/September and is believed to be part of a series of six paintings known as The Month. Only five of the six are still around, the sixth has been lost to history.
Here’s a list of the five:
- The Hunters in the Snow (December-January), 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
- The Gloomy Day (February-March), 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
- The Hay Harvest (June-July), 1565, Lobkowicz Palace at the Prague Castle Complex, Czech Republic
- The Harvesters (August-September), 1565, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- The Return of the Herd (October-November), 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
This is the story told about the painting at the Met:
This is one of six panels painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder for the suburban Antwerp home of the wealthy merchant Niclaes Jongelinck, one of the artist’s most enthusiastic patrons—Jongelinck owned no less than sixteen of Bruegel’s works. The series, which represented the seasons or times of the year, included six works, five of which survive. The other four are: Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow (all Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), and Haymaking (Nelahozeves, Czech Republic, Roudnice Lobkowicz Collection). Through his remarkable sensitivity to nature’s workings, Bruegel created a watershed in the history of Western art, suppressing the religious and iconographic associations of earlier depictions of the seasons in favor of an unidealized vision of landscape. The Harvesters probably represented the months of August and September in the context of the series. It shows a ripe field of wheat that has been partially cut and stacked, while in the foreground a number of peasants pause to picnic in the relative shade of a pear tree. Work continues around them as a couple gathers wheat into bundles, three men cut stalks with scythes, and several women make their way through the corridor of a wheat field with stacks of grain over their shoulders. The vastness of the panorama across the rest of the composition reveals that Bruegel’s emphasis is not on the labors that mark the time of the year, but on the atmosphere and transformation of the landscape itself. The Seasons series continued to be cherished even after it left its original setting: by 1595, the panels, having been purchased by Antwerp, were presented as a gift to Archduke Ernst, governor of the Netherlands, on the occasion of his triumphal entry into the city. From there they entered the illustrious collection of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at Prague.
And here is what one of my favorite art critics, Sister Wendy, had to say about The Harvesters in her book, American Masterpieces:
“Bruegel is the most deceptive of the old masters; his work looks so simple, yet is infinitely profound. The Harvesters is one of a series of paintings representing the months. Five of the series remain, and in Vienna, you can view three of them on one long wall in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (which is lucky enough to own another eleven of Bruegel’s paintings, representing nearly a third of his surviving works). Seeing the three in all of their majesty — each a world in itself — made me doubt Bruegel’s wisdom in attempting a series. Each one is overwhelming, though it is easier to feel its impact than to explain it.
“The Harvesters is basically, I think, a visual meditation on the near and the far. The near is the harvesters themselves – painted as only Bruegel can paint. He shows us real people: the man slumped with exhaustion, or intoxication; the hungry eaters; the men finishing off their work before their noontime break. Yet he caricatures them just slightly. He sees a woman with grain-like hair, and women walking through the fields like moving grain stacks. He smiles, but he also sighs. There is not a sentimental hair on Bruegel’s paintbrush, but nobody has more compassion for the harsh life of the peasant. His faces are those of people who are almost brutalized — vacant faces with little to communicate.
“He sets this “near” in the wonder of the “far”: the rolling world of corn and wood, of small hills spreading in sunlit glory to the misty remoteness of the harbor. Into this distance, the peasants disappear, swallowed up. They cannot see it, but we – aloft with the artist – can see it for what it is: the beautiful world in which we are privileged to live. He makes us aware not just of space, but of spaciousness – an immensely satisfying, potential earthly paradise. No other landscape artist has treated a landscape with such intellectual subtlety, yet Bruegel states nothing. He simply stirs us into receptivity.”
If you want to learn more about the artist, Wikipedia, the Art Archive or the ArtCyclopedia are all good places to start. And to see more of his work, both Ricci-Art and Art Show Magazine have good collections, and Pieter-Bruegel.com seems to have most of his known works, but it’s in French.