Pieter Bruegel The Elder. The Return of the Herd (Autumn). 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. ©KHM-Museumsverband
Allow me to share some travel plans. In October I’m setting off to walk from Milan to Munich, across the Alps. The premise for this 350-mile mountain trek lies in the paintings of the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Bruegel crossed the Alps, probably on foot, in 1554. The young artist had spent the previous two years soaking up the southern renaissance in Italy and his journey over the mountains was on his way back to Antwerp. This crossing must have impressed him deeply. Alpine peaks, valleys and passes crop up in his paintings with a giddy, unsurpassed realism. He turned a Flemish tradition of stock mountain backgrounds into sublimely beautiful landscapes in their own right.
Of course, there is much more to Bruegel’s genius than mountainous landscapes. The breadth of humanity he covers in his paintings, from Apocalyptic hellscapes to Flemish village festivals, is Shakespearean. And whether they should be seen in terms of political comment, social documentary, religious moralising, misanthropic satire, or a humane empathy remains elusive, perhaps deliberately so. But it is the depiction of nature and the landscape compositions in these paintings that always strike me first.
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Haymaking.1565. Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle, Prague.
I’ve been a bit obsessed with Bruegel ever since I saw his painting Haymaking at the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague. The thing was luminous. It stood alone in the room like a cinema screen; a near 500-year-old, mid-summer clarity pulling me into its animate details. Nature glowed condensed yet intensely complete. I’d never seen anything like it. His peasants working the hay meadows walked with an easy, river-like motion, leading me along divergent paths, past bizarre village archery games, up to precipitous castle-walls. This was beyond the tricks of composition. Bruegel was a film director, moving my eyes around his semi-fictional foothills. And there, in the middle distance, an Alpine crag dominated the composition.
Closer, his technique was unfathomable. How could this thinly painted fluency of minute flicks, smudges and blobs evoke a world at once so charming, troubling, amusing, and of such bewildering beauty? And what was Bruegel telling me? The gorgeous, bluish horizon emanated an uncomfortable benignness; below, peasants toiled in the sun; a man in the shadowed foreground mended a broken scythe. Was he saying that life’s struggles were going on while I was inside, decadently gazing at a painting? I had an inkling Bruegel was mocking my reverence. Some of the men had fruit baskets instead of heads. A woman with a hay rake fixed me with her own, sad glance, “What are you gawping at?” She seemed to say. But I didn’t want to stop gawping at this painting, I wanted to steal it, I wanted to see it every day.
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Landscape with the Flight into Egypt.1563. The Courtauld, London (Samuel d Trust) © The Courtauld
I’ve read you could spend a lifetime studying a single Bruegel painting and I can believe it — I’ve kept here to describing only the most visceral reactions to his work. His mini alpine wonder in the Courtauld Gallery, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, with its tiny but vertiginous mountain ravines, Flemish coastline and backlit, emerald depth has been surprising me for twenty years.
It is unclear which way Bruegel took across the Alps. The sketches he must have made on route are now all lost. Rubens owned a Bruegel painting, also lost, of the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland so perhaps he crossed there. He wouldn’t have crossed as far east as the Tyrol where I am going, but I am not trying to retrace his footsteps. Doing so would nag me into attempting and failing to emulate something of his art in the sketches and paintings I’ll be making on the trip. Instead I’m going to emulate a brief but important moment in Bruegel’s artistic life by crossing the Alps on my own walk.
In my rucksack I’ll be carrying 20 silk canvases I’ve sized for watercolour and ink and stitched for easy stretching onto a single collapsible stretcher frame. I’ll set up these stretched silks in mountain refuges and shepherds huts or outside if the weather is good. Maybe I’ll go full romantic and paint from a mountain top.
I wonder how many drawings Bruegel made on his mountain journey. Engravings taken from his Alpine sketches and a few surviving Italian landscape drawings suggest he was always sketching from nature, at least at the start of his career. But later, unbelievably, there is no surviving evidence of such in situ sketches for his complex paintings and studio drawings. How he came up with the amount of hyper evocative and often weird realism during his short life (he died in his mid forties) seems utterly mysterious to me. His visual memory must have been extraordinary. There are stories of how he would disguise himself as a peasant to observe the customs at village weddings and festivals. One near contemporary famously wrote that Bruegel swallowed the mountains whole when he crossed the Alps and later regurgitated them, perfectly reformed, into his art. I think he meant Bruegel didn’t merely mimic nature, he recreated it as an equal, parallel phenomenon.
When I get to Munich I will see two of Bruegel’s paintings, The Land Of Cockaigne and his Head of an Old Woman. I’ll then catch the train to Vienna where some of his greatest paintings hang in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Haymaking, which I saw in Prague, is part of a series of six Seasons paintings. Three of these, more disturbing masterpieces, I’ll see in Vienna and they all contain Alpine scenes.* There’s the most famous, Hunters in the Snow, (Winter), and also The Return of the Heard (Autumn) and The Gloomy Day (Early Spring). Then there's The Conversion of Paul where a renaissance army climbs up a mountain pass. It is stupendous, though I’ve never seen it (or the other three) in real life. Hopefully, after walking over the Alps and with the mountains fresh in my mind, I’ll approach these paintings a little prepared. And maybe I might have gained a glimmer of an insight into how Bruegel came up with these unimaginable compositions.
Below is a link to a website by the Kunsthistorisches Museum where they have scanned a number of Bruegel paintings, including most of the ones I’ve mentioned, down to the millimetre; https://www.insidebruegel.net/#p/v=paintings&lan=en&a=9003&x=s:3_l:1_v1:9003,vis
*According to the 16th century art historian Karel Van Mander, Bruegel had a reputation as a specialist painter of the Alps so perhaps there were once many more Alpine inspired paintings.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Gloomy Day (Early Spring).1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. ©KHM-Museumsverband
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Hunters in the Snow (Winter) 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. ©KHM-Museumsverband
Pieter Bruegel The Elder. The Conversion of Paul. 1567. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. ©KHM-Museumsverband