The Brueghel family has long enjoyed a strong history in the realm of Flemish painting. The patriarch of the family, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, set the stage for the family’s success and popularity in 16th-century Dutch Renaissance art that carried on for his future generations. The subject of peasants in everyday life was unusual for the period, and Bruegel became a true pioneer and innovator in the genre. His earthy and unsentimental works offered viewers a unique window into every day, presenting scenes of peasant and village life that one could find from few other artists. Village dancing, feasting, games, rituals, and agriculture are among the many rural subjects that Bruegel so truthfully and candidly depicted. Today, these images give us a window into everyday Belgian life and culture.
Due to the work of his eldest son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the family’s tradition of creating genre and peasant scenes continued into the 17th century. Pieter Brueghel the Younger began his impressive career by copying the masterworks of his father. Though Breughel was just five years old when his father died, he still was able to develop a keen eye for his father’s most innovative painterly techniques.
In this masterwork, entitled “The Alchemist,” his father’s artistic hallmarks and stylistic innovations are clearly manifested through Brueghel’s own hand. Based on a drawing done by his father in 1558, Brueghel turned the composition into a bold and vibrant oil on panel. The intricate work depicts a subject of great interest of the time – the alchemist. The science of alchemy, or the attempt to transform one metal into another, was practiced from antiquity through the 17th century. Beginning in the 15th century, the practice was first known to attract frauds and common, and by the time of Bruegel the Elder, the practice was completely discredited.
In this work, the alchemist hunches over his makeshift laboratory while a busy scholar reads below him and a fool thoughtlessly feeds air into the fire. The alchemist’s wife stands next to him, searching her purse as she throws her last gold coin into the crucible. In the background of the composition rests a foreshadowing: the ill-fated family is welcomed with charity into the Church. Through this vibrant and complex picture, Brueghel relays the message that folly often leads to ruin. Unlike his father’s drawing, this version of the alchemist’s folly is rendered with a remarkable attention to detail that only enhances the amusing narrative.
While much of his oeuvre was dedicated to copying the works of his father, Brueghel did compose subjects uniquely his own. This oil on panel, entitled “The Payment of Tithe,” is one example of a work by Brueghel that was not originally created by his father. This 17th-century masterpiece depicts a subject that resonated with Flemish art patrons of the time: a caricatured figure of King Charles V of Spain as a tax collector. This composition is a striking illustration of the unfavorable opinion Flemish peasants held towards their sovereign authorities. The figures and setting are painted in impeccable detail, from the bundles of bags to the papers strewn throughout.
Both of these compositions represent the “Brueghel-esque” satirical style. While successfully adhering to his father’s hallmark painterly styles, Brueghel was also able to cultivate his own artistic personality as he pioneered his own expressions and techniques.