Whether you spell his name Bruegel, Breugel, Brueghel or call him Peasant, Droll or the Elder, there is no denying Pieter Bruegel’s importance to art, particularly to Flemish art. He lived during a time when Flemish painting was becoming influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Flemish painting was known for its scenes of everyday life, realistic landscapes, and portraits. But it was the way in which the Italian Renaissance influenced religious scenes in Flemish art which caused controversy. The rediscovery of classic architecture and sculpture was a key component of why it was called The Renaissance. This imagery and style began to infiltrate its way into Flemish painting. Tranquil Flemish backgrounds were suddenly replaced by Greek and Roman-style architecture, pillars, and archways which had no relationship to the Flemish style. Figures also started to take on classic mythical appearances. This was the result of many Flemish artists making trips to Italy, of which Bruegel was also one. However, it is Bruegel’s return from Italy where, as Esther Singleton writes,
…he may be said to have revived the Flemish spirit which was daily dying under the imitation of the Italians. Brueghel would not allow himself to be carried along with the crowdThe Art of the Belgian Galleries by Esther Singleton (1909)
In one of the most famous art books of the 20th century, Thomas Craven’s Men of Art published in 1931, Craven had a more direct critique (typical of him) of what was going on at the time.
…they loaded their own honest realism with theatrical decoration and Italian clap-trap.Men of Art by Thomas Craven (1931)
While Craven was praising of Bruegel and his efforts to maintain the integrity of Flemish art, he was less positive than Esther Singleton about the impact it had on reviving the “Flemish spirit”.
But not even the stout imagination of Bruegel could redeem Flemish painting from the banality of the Italianates.Men of Art by Thomas Craven (1931)
It is during this topsy turvy time period in art that we find this edition of Drunken Masterpieces, which returns to the Old Masters Museum in Brussels for another round. And maybe a third and fourth. Who knows, by the time we are done with this edition, maybe we will find ourselves totally sloshed, completely smashed, and making fools of ourselves behaving like drunk people do. How do we know so much about drunk people? If you want to observe the nature of drunk people, you have a couple choices. Go to your local pub on a Friday night or visit the Old Masters Museum in Brussels. The choice is yours. It just so happens that 16th century Flemish art is a veritable text book on drunk behavior. This is the time of Bruegel and Bruegel’s attempts at Flemish spirit revival, and it is with Bruegel where we start. But the drunks that will be discussed below are not your everyday drunks, they have a special classification invented by yours truly, which hopefully requires no explanation, that I call…
The Background Drunk.
The Apolitical Background Drunk
In The Numbering of Bethlehem, Bruegel the Elder transposes the biblical census performed by the Romans in Judea in 6 CE with the contemporary backdrop of the Spanish occupation of the southern Netherlands. Let’s face it, when your country is being occupied by a foriegn power, what better way is there to just stay out of the way than going to the local pub and getting hammered, even in the dead of Winter? Drunks will drink outdoors in any weather, under any government.
The Apolitical Background Drunk – Next Generation
Pieter Bruegel the Elder naturally had a son Pieter Bruegel the Younger, who was quite fond of copying his father’s art. Think what you want about this copy, but Bruegel the Younger did manage to reveal the side of our background drunk’s face.
The Missing-the-Action Background Drunk
When you first look at this scene by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, it initially looks like any playful Winter scene in a quaint village. That is until you notice the anguished despair of mothers weeping over their murdered children. The Massacre of the Innocents was one of the most atrocious moments in the history of humankind. I can imagine that some soldiers would have needed to substantially liquor up to mentally prepare for slaughtering infants and children. But when the time comes for action, your bladder might have other ideas, like the armored warrior struggling with his zipper in this painting. This type of drunk is a relative to the Missing-Your-Team-Scoring-A-Touchdown-While-Taking-A-Piss drunk.
On the flip-side, the Halberdier, who seems enraged by the tear in his pantaloons and is intent on trying to kick in a door with his slippers, could probably use a drink or two.
The Overly Patriotic Spectator Background Drunk
In 1231, St. Anthony of Padua knew he was going to die and wanted to take one final walk from Camposampiero to Padua, Italy, a 25km journey. St. Anthony died in Arcella which is today a neighborhood of Padua. Apparently making the pilgrimage must have been something to celebrate. Pieter Aertsen’s (a contemporary of Bruegel) Return from St. Anthony’s Pilgrimage shows a village celebrating the return of the pilgrims. There is music, dancing, and even a souvenir stand selling trinkets. There must have been a great sense of community pride, almost as if some great victory had occurred. There is always at least one spectator at these sorts of events who will drunkenly go overboard waving a flag and chanting a national song. Watching a procession of Christian pilgrims must have been like Belgium winning the World Cup but 500 years ago.
Interestingly, the flag that the spectator is waving matches the color scheme of today’s flag of Germany. This painting was done in the mid-1500’s and it wasn’t until 1778 that any state which is now part of Germany adopted a flag of those colors. Belgium’s flag uses the same colors but the bars are vertical and the yellow and red are inverted.
The Dancing on the Tables Background Drunk
Most people have a dancing on the tables story. If you think your’s is unique, it is most likely that it has been outdone somewhere in history. If you really want to impress people, have a dancing on the barrel story. Nothing makes a drunk even more of a drunk than a good barrel story. One depiction of this impressive feat is Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Battle of Carnival and Lent. Just look at the attention that guy is getting as he chugs a pitcher of beer. Surrounded by ladies, arms outstretched in admiration. Until you notice that someone is dumping a chamber pot out the window above his head. The women now seem to be screaming, Kijk Uit! His fleeting moment of fame is about to turn into his worst nightmare.
The Nagged Background Drunk
Some drunks are not fortunate enough to just be drunks. Some actually have families, and most of those that do are actually expected to come home once in a while. In Pieter Bout’s The Village Yearly Market, we find one of these wretched souls. Nothing kicks a man in the nuts more than seeing a nagging wife dragging her reluctant drunk husband home along with their obnoxious children. Let drunks be drunks. It’s the yearly market, for Chrissakes.
Couples that Drink Together Stay Together Background Drunk
If you are one of the lucky few whose wife actually joins in the drinking, then for sure when your village is celebrating the latest pilgrimage, like in Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s The Return From the Pilgrimage, there can be no stopping the fun. Only pausing it for a few minutes while you stand guard for her to take a piss. It is up to you to protect her honor from prying eyes.
Drinking with the Bestie is Better than the Loner Background Drunk
We come full circle back to Bruegel the Elder’s The Wine of St. Martin’s Day showing the biggest orgy of drinking out of all of these paintings. The festival of St. Martin’s Day was to celebrate the first wine of the season. Here we see all kinds of drunks. We have the sorry drunk sitting by himself in the corner. Nobody remembers those kind of nights. But when you are drinking with your bestie, there is a very good chance you’ll do some stupid sh*t. Who hasn’t had the cringeworthy experience of getting so drunk, you take your bestie by the hand and perform a jig? A drunk isn’t a drunk unless he has danced the jig with his drinking buddy.
Have you ever had so much fun in the Italian section of an art museum? Thank goodness that artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder didn’t let the fads of the day change their perspective on art composition. How else would we know so much about the finer details of drunk behavior?
Bruegel was born somewhere in the vicinity of Breda in the Netherlands but died in Brussels. Today, there is no dispute that Brussels hangs their hat on Bruegel to put Brussels on the art pilgrimage map. He is buried at the Church of Notre Dame de la Chapelle which is a 10 minute walk from the Old Masters Museum. You can also toast Bruegel with a beer named after the Master.
As Thomas Craven alluded to earlier, Flemish art was irreversibly corrupted by Italian influence. While painters like Bruegel stayed true to the more traditional Flemish style, the direction of Flemish art was for better or for worse still moving in some other direction. Was there hope for Flemish art? To put it in context, it is important to continue Craven’s earlier message.
But not even the stout imagination of Bruegel could redeem Flemish painting from the banality of the Italianates. A greater man was needed, one capable of going to school to the Mediterranean masters without sacrificing his own originality.
That man was Peter Paul Rubens.Men of Art by Thomas Craven (1931)