Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569), beloved Netherlandish painter of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's great oil, The Harvesters (1565), is rarely considered as a draughtsman. "Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints," now at the Met through Dec. 2, 2001, changes that. The exhibition brings together 50 of his 61 extant drawings, prints based upon many of them, and drawings by contemporaries.
For the first time in 25 years, it is possible to analyze Bruegel's recently and radically rethought canon. In this exemplary exhibition, generous samples of whole batches of recently excluded sheets are grouped by the purported hands of their makers. Viewers are invited to try their eyes at the scholarly game of attribution. Even the rejects are interesting, like the series of individual figures given to Roelandt Savery, a slightly later artist.
Little is known of Bruegel's life. We can't even be sure of where and when he was born. He may have trained with the painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst, and we do know he married van Aelst's daughter in 1563.
Crucial to Bruegel's early development is a trip to Italy from 1552-54. Bruegel brought back Italy to the Netherlands and combined what he'd learned of the Venetians Titian and Domenico Campagnola with traditional Netherlandish landscape. While other Northern artists were making the same journey, Bruegel managed to integrate the gentle rhythms of Italian drawing with the naturalism of the North in a distinctive manner.
Bruegel's compositions are orderly, flowing affairs yet crammed with many elements. Perhaps the most satisfying is his Mountain Landscape with River and Travelers, one of three great landscapes all thought to have been done in 1553. The people, animals, houses, castle, ships, rocky outcrops, fields, and forested slopes deserve lots of study.
Bruegel creates an alpine river valley that dwarfs the many human and animal figures negotiating its trails. His pen dances and darts, slows and picks up speed again with arpeggios of hooked lines, long parallel thrusts, soft undulations and tiny dashed and dotted tree tops.
Most of Bruegel's landscape drawings, as well as his later allegorical sheets, were published as prints. Landscape absorbed Bruegel at the start of his artistic life, but it was his allegorical drawings à la Hieronymous Bosch and the prints based on them that established him as an artist. And they are fun.
Paired with the prints made from them, the allegorical drawings show that this so-called "second Bosch" borrowed plenty from the first one. Unlike his predecessor, Bruegel's works seem less the result of desperation than concentration. He doesn't relish the most outré fantasy as much as Bosch. Instead, Bruegel bored into everyday life, finding the best and worse of the human condition, as in his Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1556).
Bruegel's love of allegory continues through the late drawings with Spring (1565) and Summer (1570) based on passage of the seasons. The Painter and the Connoisseur (mid-1560s) in grey-brown and touches of brown ink illustrates the differences between the intense, clear-seeing artist and his purse-clutching, visually handicapped patron.
We may never know much more about the man, but it is assumed that Bruegel must have produced many more drawings. The only clue about the drawings is that he supposedly asked his wife to destroy some as profane when he was on his deathbed. He did live during a period of religious wars, although it's hard to see traces of that in his work.
It is thanks to Nadine M. Orenstein and Michiel Plomp, both associate curators of the Met's department of drawings and prints, and Manfred Sellink, director of Stedelijke Musea Brugge, that we can savor and puzzle over most of what remains of Bruegel's drawings.
My two quibbles about this wonderful show concern its installation. It needs more room. All the extra material is fine, but 144 items spilling over three galleries doesn't give them sufficient breathing space.
A second problem is the lack of magnifying glasses. Why can't the Met take a lesson from the Frick and have some loaners available? I overheard several people wishing that they had brought theirs and lent them mine for a few minutes, but a magnifying glass concession would clean up with this show. It could be a new source of revenue. It might help to refill the Met's coffers after their generous invitation for all to visit without admission in the days following the terrorist attacks on New York and D.C.
The exceptional catalogue to the show, Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Prints and Drawings, edited by Orenstein, features 274 illustrations (108 in color) and is published by Yale University Press ($60).