Peter Bruegel, the Elder


[ca. 1525 – 1569]


Page designed by Katherine Haynes.



National Gallery (USA)

Web Gallery of Art


The Met Museum Special Topic Page

Rebel Angels

Peasant Dance

Triumph of Death

Further Reading:

Gibson, Walter S. Bruegel. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Kavaler, Ethan Matt. Pieter Bruegel: Parables of Order and Enterprise. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Sullivan, Margaret A. Bruegel’s Peasants: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Mad Meg

Peter Bruegel, the Elder (ca. 1525-1569) was a successful Flemish artist during his lifetime, the founding influence of a family of artists and followers, including his two sons, Peter Bruegel the Younger and Jan Bruegel, as well as Johannes van Doetechum, the Elder and Lucas van Doetechum. Travel over the Alps to Italy in his early adulthood made a lasting impact on his art, both for the liveliness of his landscape and for the cross fertilization of Italian-Netherlandish styles visible in his paintings. Landscape figures into Bruegel’s art as a real subject. One can see how the landscape often becomes one of the themes in his art. His early work shows that he was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch, although Bruegel’s style lay in depicting even potentially surreal scenes with a certain calm realism.


Bruegel is famous for his depictions of peasant life, such as "Peasant Dance," "Wedding," "Children’s Games," and the grim, physically grotesque figures of the "Beggars." He also turned his observant eye on the suffering his of native land by Spain. Different versions of the "Tower of Babel" present a scathing assessment of Spanish pride being constructed in a Flemish landscape. The entire ecosystem is subjected to disfigurement; land and people alike are defaced under such rule. In "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" the judgment of overweening pride is made relative against the more significant daily round of ordinary life. Icarus is twice lost, in the sea where he plummets, and more importantly, into the background where his existence deserves to be swallowed. Not only does he receive no pity; he receives no notice. Bruegel frequently commented upon current social injustices through his religious works, as in the "Tower of Babel" and "The Numbering of Bethlehem," by using local settings and people. Here, the landscape is featured as a real character in the narrative, such as the harsh winter conditions of the snow in the Bethlehem painting. Recently, art historians have objected to earlier interpretations of Bruegel as the "Peasant Bruegel" noting that while he depicted the peasant class, they were typically viewed as distinctly other by the artist and by his intended audience.


Many of his paintings are considered to be allegorical to a minute degree, using symbols that no longer can be unraveled. "Mad Meg" at the mouth of hell is one such painting. Others are more easily accessible, such as the famous "Proverbs." Once known as "The World Turned Upside Down," this painting still exists in a number of copies by his son, demonstrating its popularity. A collage of individual vignettes people a rural landscape. The actions of adults behaving badly: against all reasonableness, literalize the common proverbs of the day. Many are still readily identified by the common viewer. Part of the continued delight is the ordinariness of people mirroring lives of everyday existence. Bruegel’s satirical art addresses the early modern concerns of individuality, human behavior, nationalism, and the despoilment of nature.

The Beggars

Tower of Babel

The Numbering at Bethlehem