Brueghel’s Renaissance Beauty and Blisters (Part I)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s sixteenth century masterpiece The Harvesters (1565) provides vivid commentary on the Old World division of labor. The vibrant panorama is one of five in the acclaimed Renaissance artist’s ambitious Seasons series of wide, high diagonal foregrounds that allow viewers to perceive vast distances. The work teems with life and hot summer harvest bounty likely set in “Peasant Brueghel’s” native northern Brabant district of central Belgium. A group of men wield scythes in a dense stand of wheat almost as high as they stand, followed by women who pile the stalks into sheaves which some carry toward a clearing. In the distance a team of oxen pulls a wagon piled high with grain to the farmstead to await threshing. The field’s proximity to a church suggests these communal endeavors are hallowed tasks, while field hands also cluster in the shade of pear tree to rest, frolic, and eat bread and porridge. The grand work is also an allegorical depiction of Proverbs 10:5—“He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame.” Flemish threshers also banded together by the thousands in this time to cross the Channel and work the later English harvest. They brought their folksongs with them, including one derived from a Medieval Latin hymn with a cadence guided by the swinging of their scythes. The tune’s doggerel verses were re-translated again by English hearers as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565)
Oil on wood, 45⅞ x 62⅞ inches
Rogers Fund, Metropolitan Art Museum, New York; Wikimedia Commons

                Brueghel (1525-1569) began his career as an engraver, and his landscape Rustic Efforts (Solicitudo Rustica) shows the influence of his earlier travels to Italy in 1552-1553. Before this time, Brueghel, like most other artists of the age, used landscapes as backdrops for religious figures or other representations. The idea of depicting grand open spaces for their own sake stimulated uneasy prospects in the minds of viewers accustomed to perceiving wilderness and grand vistas as fearsome. While Petrarch’s idea of ascending a mountain simply for “the view” largely remained a radical notion in the sixteenth century, Brueghel’s art humanized such perspectives in ways that marked the emergence of a new approach that would popularize landscapes. Rustic Efforts—sometimes translated Country Concerns, presents a grand agrarian vista of Flemish vitality that directs the viewer from two harvesters in the lower right-hand corner upwards to a primal forest far in the distance, and across waterways teeming with trading vessels to steeply thrusting mountains on the left side. Between the scythers and the mountains is a broad verdant plain with a universe of tiny villages, a gristmill and churches, and farm workers and livestock who share the fields with the Brueghel’s puffy trees. One’s eyes return to the two harvesters, one of whom is pounding his scythe on a small anvil, who might well be thinking with pride, “We make all this possible.”

Known for realism in a day of artistic formalism, Brueghel offers a faithful if restrained record of agrarian life in its many manifestations—joy and fatigue, beauty and blisters, to impart the sense that peasants were ciphers for timeless humanity. Among his revolutionary artistic innovations is the sympathetic portrayal of ordinary people with all their foibles and prosaic chores amidst backdrops of natural grandeur.