Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel
Interpretation of Dutch Renaissance Moralistic Genre Painting

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Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel
Netherlandish Proverbs
(detail) By Pieter Bruegel.
Seen as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever,
and an expression of
Protestant Reformation Art.

Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)


Interpretation/Meaning of Netherlandish Proverbs
More Works By Bruegel


Artist: Pieter Bruegel (1525-69)
Medium: Oil on oak panel
Genre: Genre Painting
Movement: Netherlandish Renaissance
Museum: Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.

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Interpretation of Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel Elder

This extraordinary work by Pieter "Peasant" Bruegel the Elder - one of the greatest Renaissance paintings in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch - was originally called The Blue Hood/Cloak or The Folly of the World, indicating that the artist's intention was not simply to illustrate traditional sayings but rather to illustrate the universal stupidity of man. By 1558, Bruegel - already developing into one of the best genre painters in the Low Countries - had already completed a series of Twelve Proverbs on individual panels, as well as Big Fish Eat Little Fish in 1556, but Netherlandish Proverbs is thought to be the first large scale representation of the genre in Flemish painting. The proverbs in question are of two types: those which turn reason on its head, thus demonstrating the absurdity of much of our behaviour; and more serious proverbs illustrating the dangers of folly, which leads to sin. Following in the moralistic (albeit more humanistic) tradition of Bosch, Bruegel offers us a topsy-turvy world, with the Devil seen in the centre of the painting hearing confession. Both the artist and his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, made several copies of Netherlandish Proverbs, but not all versions show exactly the same proverbs.



A Form of Protestant Religious Art

Like his other moralistic and highly detailed panel paintings, including The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), and Children's Games (1560) - both in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna - Netherlandish Proverbs features a Lilliputian swarm of miniature men, women, children and animals acting out selected instances of wisdom or folly. In keeping with the less indulgent (and less overt) religious art of the Protestant Northern Renaissance, it is Bruegel's view of contemporary society - one characterized by a keen sense of the grotesque, the tragicomic and the sinful: the inescapable result of the Fall. Like several other Northern Renaissance artists of the 16th century Dutch School, Bruegel's work demonstrates his mastery of oil painting, his handling of colour pigments, and his creative compositional flair.

Collection of Proverbs

The Netherlandish language of Bruegel's time was even richer in proverbs than it is today. And Netherlanders have always been fond of such repositories of human wisdom. Erasmus' Adagia were first published in 1500 and contained about 800 items; they conveyed the blessings of the greatest humanist upon a popular collecting phase and were soon reprinted with a vastly increased number of entries. Proverbs have a way of unmasking human folly, and Erasmus was magnetically drawn to this aspect of them as Bruegel was to be. Proverbs also have a way of being ambiguous, multi-faceted, and Bruegel shared with many of his contemporaries a distinct preference for these properties - the typically Mannerism preference for the ambigious, the enigmatic, the hidden meanings, which our own age has rediscovered and awarded such wide (and often misguided) acclaim. Several of the proverbs represented in the Berlin picture have disappeared from usage; others are ambivalent; others again may intrigue us primarily because they have no clear English equivalent. One has to know that a 'pillar-bitter' is a hypocrite and that she who puts a blue hood over her husband makes him a cuckold; and here one fills the well/pond after the calf has been drowned in it, instead of locking the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Features: Colour Scheme

While the accumulation of proverbs was a widespread literally device and had also been tried in visual representations, Bruegel's picture of 1559 is the first that united about 100 of them in one comprehensive spatial setting, a true 'proverb country' even though this setting is more psycological rather than realistically plausible. The success of the composition is perhaps due more to the subtle and amazingly successful colour scheme than to the distribution of figures and architecture, for which Bruegel may have availed himself of the precedent set by Hieronymus Bosch in a Last Judgement engraved by Hieronymus Cock. The combination of strong reds and blues marks decisive points of main structure throughout, and these set the pace from the iconographic point of view as well, since they demarcate scenes of folly and sin.

The centre is dominated by the blue hood placed by a woman over her husband from which the picture derived its title for many years; its meaning extends beyond the specific one of making a cuckold of a husband and indicates betrayal and cheating in general; the blue colour often stands for cheating as well as for folly, while red can stand for sin and impudence. The blue, foolish, topsy-turvey world is prominently displayed on the left; a red scoundrel drastically expresses his contempt of it; the Netherlandish word verkeerd (like its German equivalent verkehrt) stands for both upside down and wrong. Christ, in a blue garb, is the victim of the treachery and folly of a monk who has put him on a red chair, and mocks him by putting a flaxen beard on him.


The power and realism of Bruegel's view of mankind as endlessly involved in foolish actions is even greater when compared with a woodcut by Sebald Beham, which lists a large number of follies in its caption but illustrates only two of them, and with the surviving half of Franz Hogenberg's engraving The Blue Hood, which illustrates many of them but in a disjointed, isolated fashion. Nevertheless, this engraving which was almost certainly produced in 1558, was an important source for Bruegel, the more so as it puts the blue hood in a very prominent position. The 'proverb island' in Rabelais' Pantagruel, in which proverbs are represented in accumulative actions similar to Bruegel's is the most famous literally parallel of the Berlin painting, but it was not published until 1564 and therefore cannot have been a source for Brugel's Netherlandish Proverbs.

To what extent Bruegel regarded proverbs primarily as a parade of human folly he indicated not only by the prominence of the upside down world, but also by the characterisation of his actors. Already in this early work, most of his characters exhibit the blank round-eyed faces which in conjunction with their frenzied but senseless activity convey that expression of pathetic futility, that automaton-like forlorness, which was to touch upon unforgettable tradegy in his late works such as Parable of the Blind (1568, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples).

The Proverbs

Bruegel has hidden his proverbs in both buildings and the landscape in ways that are sometimes grotesque, but always highly imaginative. The man on the battlements of the Tower holding his coat in the breeze symbolizes the proverb to 'know where the wind is coming from' and the figure next to him 'shakes feathers out in the window' which means that all his efforts have been in vain. The woman who 'watches the storks' is wasting time, while the man falling 'from an ox onto a donkey' is experiencing business setbacks. The man who 'bites into a pillar' is a hypocrite, while an empty herring refers to the saying 'more than an empty herring', meaning 'more than meets the eye'. A man unable to stretch from one loaf of bread to another, is no good with money. The person who spills his porridge, will never be able to spoon it all back into the bowl. The man who opens his mouth wider than an oven door, is overestimating his abilities. The man in the box on top of a column, the pillory, also represents a little known proverb - he is 'playing on the pillory' meaning attracting attention to himself. In the latrine on the right-hand side of the Tower two men are 'defecating into the same hole' an illusion to inseparable companions. Some of the sayings in the picture are still in use today, including: big fish eat little fish; banging one's head against a brick wall; swimming against the tide; and armed to the teeth.



More Works By Pieter Bruegel the Elder

For more paintings by Bruegel, see the following articles:

Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (c.1562)
Tower of Babel (1563)
Hunters in the Snow (1565)
Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7)
The Peasant Wedding (1568)

• For more about 16th century Flemish oil painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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