Brueghel was possibly born near Breda and apparently trained in Brussels under Pieter Coecke, whose daughter he married. He subsequently worked for Pieter Balten at Malines and for Hieronymus Cock in Antwerp. After Pieter Coecke's death, he visited Rome (1552–53), where he became acquainted with the miniaturist Giulio Clovio. Thence, he returned to Antwerp, where he remained until 1563; he then moved to Brussels, where he subsequently died.
As a young artist, Brueghel was principally a designer of prints for the publisher Hieronymus Cock. Such famous works as the Big Fish Eat Little Fish, published in 1557, and the cycles of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues reveal a perceptive study of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, whose work remained internationally famous decades after his death. The moralizing subject matter of Brueghel's early designs for engravings conditioned the outlook of much of his subsequent painting. For example, the Fall of Icarus (c. 1555; Brussels) is essentially a condemnation of pride. In the Berlin Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), sometimes misunderstood as a compendium of folk customs, mankind's foolishness is expressed through illustrations of popular sayings. The Combat Between Carnival and Lent (also 1559; Vienna) is an ironic condemnation of the hypocrisy of both Protestants and Catholics, which inclines only slightly towards the latter, the artist's own co-religionists. An extremely important illustration of intellectual attitudes towards the religious strife in the Netherlands on the eve of the Dutch revolt, this painting reflects Brueghel's connections with the liberal humanistic circle of the geographer Abraham Ortelius. References to the uneasy political situation in the Netherlands have also been divined in his Road to Calvary (1564; Vienna) and his John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness (1566; Budapest). There is a resurgence of Bosch's influence in Brueghel's paintings of 1562: the Brussels Fall of the Rebel Angels, the Antwerp Dulle Griet, and the Madrid Triumph of Death. However, naturalism reigns supreme in the five paintings of the Months, dated 1565 and currently divided between Vienna, Prague, and New York. Although the subject matter of these works derives from fifteenth-century manuscript illuminations, they are fundamentally innovatory as depictions not only of seasons but also of specific effects of weather.
For most of his career Brueghel was primarily concerned with the depiction of landscapes peopled with multitudes of tiny figures. Larger figures predominate in his Peasant Dance and Peasant Wedding (1566–67; Vienna). This development culminates in the Vienna Parable of the Bird's Nest, executed the year before his death. Brueghel was certainly the most accomplished landscape painter of the sixteenth century. On account of his penchant for peasant scenes, he is often considered as the originator of the genre scene popularized by seventeenth-century Dutch artists. However, the thrust of Brueghel's own peasant paintings was directed principally at questions of morality and the human condition. Historically, he may be considered as the artist who concluded the great chapter of northern painting initiated more than a century earlier by Jan van Eyck.
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