The hunting party comes back to the village nestled in the lowlands, tired dogs trailing behind them. A lone fox is impaled on one of the spears carried by the men. On the left, there’s activity as they prepare to roast a pig over an open fire. Charming elements, like people skating on frozen ponds, contribute to the widespread appeal of the scene. However, it’s not the individual details that give the painting its significance, but rather the overall impact. With both skill and consistency, Bruegel creates the impression of enduring cold in this foremost winter landscape in European art.

It all starts with Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525/30-1569), whose obscure origins are revealed in his surname, which literally means ‘small village’. An exceptional talent, he moved to Brussels as an adolescent to become the pupil of Pieter Coecke, the official artist to the Habsburg court. In pieces like The Peasant Wedding or Hunters in the Snow, both now housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Pieter Bruegel the Elder portrays everyday Flemish people. What’s fascinating is that he weaves in sophisticated and sometimes rebellious nods to poetry, philosophy, politics, and religion. What sets Bruegel apart is his groundbreaking use of oil paint to capture snowfall. Take Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap where a trap in the foreground of a frozen scene, set before an open window, becomes a mysterious metaphor for the divine, with an unseen figure adding depth to the narrative.

Ever wonder how to spell the name of a famous artist correctly? Well, in the 16th and 17th centuries, there wasn’t just one right way! Pieter the Elder started with ‘Bruegel,’ but then Pieter the Younger added an ‘h’ around 1615, turning it into ‘Brueghel.’ That’s the name used by their family for generations! Later on, they switched the ‘u’ and the ‘e,’ and now we use that spelling for the less famous family members, starting from Jan the Younger onwards.

The intriguing question of how Bruegel’s sons carried on his artistic legacy is a captivating aspect of the Brueghel family saga. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, creating 45 paintings in his brief 45-year lifespan, left a remarkable artistic legacy. His sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), also known as Pieter Brueghel II, and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), named so because his own son, Jan the Younger, inherited the name in the family tradition, both managed to achieve significant success as artists despite being under five years old when their father passed away.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger took charge of the family artistic enterprise, specializing in reproducing his father’s most renowned works. Notably, he crafted over 40 copies of “The Bird Trap.” Remarkably, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s artistic journey extended into his seventies, during which he produced an impressive body of work, with almost 1,000 known paintings to his name. The tale of how the Brueghel sons carried forward their father’s artistic heritage is both enigmatic and inspiring.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), The Battle between Carnival and Lent.

As Pieter Brueghel the Younger‘s art journey unfolded, he started creating his own unique artworks, diving deeper into countryside scenes and landscapes, often adding cheeky surprises. In a painting called “The Netherlandish Proverbs,” inspired by his dad’s work from 1559, he packed over 100 sayings into a lively scene.

Imagine this: people doing silly things like banging their heads on walls, tossing feathers in the breeze, and even the blind leading the blind.

The Bad Shepherd is an ambivalent version of the famous Bible story.

Did Jan Brueghel the Elder decide to follow the family tradition?

While Pieter Brueghel the Younger dutifully carried on the family legacy, Jan Brueghel the Elder took a more rebellious path. He ventured to Italy for nearly seven years, forging friendships with prominent artists, including his future collaborator Peter Paul Rubens. Returning to Antwerp in 1600, Jan Brueghel the Elder found himself at the forefront of artistic innovation. His repertoire included allegorical and biblical scenes, and he distinguished himself as one of the pioneers in still life painting, particularly of flowers. He became known for his ability to pack remarkable intricacy into his works.

One notable piece from 1610, An extensive wooded landscape with travellers on a road, a church in the distance, showcases his talent for painting expansive landscapes. This work stands out as one of the largest he ever created on copper, lending the paint a luminous quality. It was crafted during his tenure as the court painter to the governors of the Southern Netherlands.

Further down the family line, does the artistic talent spread out?

Certainly. Jan Breughel the Younger (1601-78), also known as Jan Breughel II, emulated his father’s artistic style. While some of his work is commendable, the presence of numerous assistants has blurred the lines, making it challenging to distinguish their contributions from his own. Subsequent generations, including Jan Pieter Breughel (around 1628 – before 1684), Jan Baptist Breughel (1647-1710), and Ambrosius Breughel (1617-1675), have garnered less recognition. Notable exceptions include the exceptional still-life painter Abraham Breughel (1631-1697), the son of Jan Breughel the Younger, and the highly skilled David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), who became part of the artistic dynasty through marriage to one of Jan Brueghel the Elder’s daughters.

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