Tag: Albertina

“The Harvesters” (1565), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

“The Harvesters” (1565), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

August, harvest month

I had the privilege of spending several weeks in the Dutch countryside this August, surrounded by vast wheat fields, with tractors and combines blending their mechanical prowess reaping the harvest. Amidst the rustic charm and the modern pulse of agricultural machinery, I was reminded of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 masterpiece “The Harvesters”.

The Harvesters (1565), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, c.1525 – 1569), 119x162cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“The Harvesters” is part of a series of six works that Bruegel created for the Antwerp merchant Niclaes Jongelinck, each depicting a different season of the year. “The Harvesters” specifically portrays the season of summer. It’s a landscape painting that offers a vivid and detailed depiction of a rural scene, showing peasants engaged in various activities during the harvest season. The foreground of the painting is dominated by peasants working in the fields. They are shown harvesting wheat, with some using sickles to cut the wheat and others gathering the cut stalks into bundles. Amidst the work, there is a group of peasants taking a break under a large pear tree, relaxing and enjoying their midday meal of porridge, bread and pears. In the background on the right, a man climbed an apple tree to shake its branches, while two women gathered the fallen apples into baskets. These scenes add a touch of human connection and leisure to the painting.

The background of the painting showcases a panoramic landscape with a village, a church, and a castle on the distant horizon. This panoramic view provides a sense of depth and perspective to the scene. “The Harvesters” is celebrated for its realism, attention to everyday life, and the way it captures the essence of rural existence during the 16th century. Bruegel’s series is a watershed in the history of Western art. The religious pretext for landscape painting has been suppressed in favor of a new humanism, and the unidealized description of the local scene is based on natural observations.

Summer “Aestas”, from the series The Seasons (1570), design and drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, c.1525 – 1569), engraver Pieter van der Heyden (Flemish, c.1530 – c.1572), publisher Hieronymus Cock (Flemish, 1518 – 1570), 23x29cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder created also a series of prints that corresponded to the seasons of the year, similar to his paintings. “Summer” is one of these prints, and it’s often considered a companion piece to his painting “The Harvesters”. This famous engraving gives a glimpse of the varied work of country people on a summer’s day. In the immediate vicinity of a village, the ripe grain is scythed, bundled and transported away; but it’s also time for refreshments and a chat. In the tradition of medieval pictures of the months and seasons, Bruegel celebrates the working peasants as guarantors of the country’s prosperity. Bruegel’s prints were engraved by other artists based on his own designs and drawings, allowing his works to reach a wider audience. Brueghel’s drawing for “Summer” still exists and is now in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg; for a picture, see hereunder.

In the print “Summer” Bruegel once again focuses on the themes of rural life and the activities of peasants during the warmer months. Just like his paintings, Bruegel’s prints are celebrated for their meticulous attention to detail, rich narratives, and the way they capture the essence of the time and place they depict.

This manuscript illustration from circa 1500 is a detailed showcase of the labour-intensive process of wheat harvesting in Flandres in the pre-industrial era. Here’s an overview of the various activities involved in wheat harvesting during that time and shown on the illustrated manuscript pages above, from left to right:

  1. Reaping: The first step in wheat harvesting was reaping (Dutch: maaien), which involved cutting the mature wheat stalks with a sickle or scythe. Workers would move through the fields, carefully cutting the stalks close to the ground to ensure that the maximum amount of grain was harvested.
  2. Binding: Once the wheat stalks were cut, they were gathered into bundles or sheaves (Dutch: schoven) and tied together using straw or twine. These bundles made it easier to transport and handle the harvested wheat.
  3. Threshing: Threshing (Dutch: dorsen) was the process of separating the grain kernels from the rest of the plant. This was often done using a flail (Dutch: dorsvlegel), which consisted of a wooden handle attached to a wooden stick. Or it could be done by a horse trembling on the sheaves, as shown on this miniature, repeatedly beating the bundles of wheat to break open the husks and release the grain.
  4. Winnowing: After threshing, the mixture of grain, husks, and chaff (the dry, protective casings around the grains) needed to be separated. This was achieved through winnowing (Dutch: schiften), a process in which the mixture was tossed into the air. The wind would carry away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grain would fall back to the ground. See the top right corner of this manuscript illustration.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, c.1525 – 1569)

The Painter and the Buyer (c.1566), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, c.1525 – 1569), Pen and brown ink, 26x22cm, Albertina, Vienna.

A morose painter (a self portrait?) with a coarse brush is contrasted with a stupid-looking buyer, whose mouth is open with wonder. The inner distance between the two figures becomes evident in the polarity of their expressions. While the artist dedicates himself entirely to the work lying outside of the picture’s range, the customer is already reaching for his money-bag, apparently interested solely in material values. A symbol of ignorance, the spectacles point to this failure to appreciate art. Rather than being a self-portrait the drawing addresses the role of the artist: Pieter Brueghel is here ironically commenting on the conditions of art production in his day. (Text with thanks to the Albertina, Vienna.)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) was a renowned Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker. He is often referred to as Bruegel the Elder to distinguish him from his sons, who were also artists and carried on his artistic legacy. Key points about Pieter Bruegel the Elder:

  1. Artistic Style and Themes: Bruegel was known for his distinctive artistic style that combined meticulous detail, naturalism, and a deep understanding of human behavior. He is celebrated for his ability to capture everyday life and landscapes with a keen observation of the world around him. He often depicted scenes of peasants engaged in various activities, rural landscapes, and the changing seasons.
  2. Subject Matter: Bruegel’s works often contained social and moral commentary. He frequently explored themes related to human folly, the cycles of life, the interaction between humans and nature, and the contrasts between different social classes. His paintings and prints often had multiple layers of meaning, inviting viewers to reflect on deeper concepts.
  3. Seasonal Series: One of Bruegel’s notable accomplishments was his creation of a series of paintings that represented the different seasons of the year. These works include “The Gloomy Day” (early spring, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), “Haymaking” (early summer, Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle), “The Harvesters” (late summer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), “The Return of the Herd” (autumn, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and “The Hunters in the Snow” (winter). The “Spring” painting disappeared.
  4. Influence: Bruegel’s work had a significant impact on subsequent generations of artists. His detailed depictions of nature and human life influenced the development of landscape painting and genre painting. Artists like Peter Paul Rubens and even later masters like the Dutch Golden Age painters drew inspiration from Bruegel’s work.
  5. Humanism and Cultural Context: Bruegel’s art was created during a time when humanism was flourishing. Humanism emphasized the importance of individualism, human experience, and the natural world. Bruegel’s art reflected these ideals by portraying the common people, their joys, struggles, and the world they inhabited. While Brueghel did create some religious paintings, his most famous and distinctive works depict scenes of everyday life, landscapes, and the activities of peasants.
  6. Printmaking: In addition to his paintings, Bruegel also created a number of prints. His detailed designs were engraved by skilled printmakers, allowing his works to reach a broader audience and leaving a lasting influence on art history.
Summer (1568), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, c.1525 – 1569), Pen and brown ink on brown paper, 22x 29cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kupferstichkabinett, Hamburg, Germany.

This drawing from the Kunsthalle in Hamburg served as a relatively accurate preparatory sketch for the depiction of summer in a graphic sequence of the seasons planned by Bruegel towards the end of his life and which were put into engravings by Pieter van der Hayden (for a picture of the engraving “Summer” see above). Brueghel’s “Summer” offers a wealth of delicious pictorial inventions, such as the drinker’s foot, which pierces the front edge of the picture. Bruegel’s fine sense of humor is illustrated by the boy with a bundle of wheat growing out of his back, or the woman whose head is completely covered (or even replaced) by a basket of vegetables.

Bruegel was born in the town of Breda in the Duchy of Brabant, which is now part of the Netherlands. However, he spent a significant portion of his artistic career in Antwerp, a prominent city in Flanders. His work is associated with both the Netherlandish artistic tradition and the broader Flemish artistic movement. In essence, while Bruegel’s birthplace lies in what is now the Netherlands, his artistic contributions and much of his career are deeply connected to the artistic heritage and culture of Flanders. Therefore, he is often referred to as a Flemish artist within the context of art history.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s legacy has endured through the centuries. His works are celebrated for their ability to transport viewers into a detailed world of everyday life in the 16th century. His influence can be seen in the works of later artists, and he remains a highly respected figure in the history of Western art.

Albrecht Dürer exhibition

Albertina, Vienna
20 September 2019 – 6 January 2020

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), “Hare” (1502), Watercolor on Paper, 25x23cm, Albertina, Vienna.

With its nearly 140 works by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), the Albertina Museum in Vienna is home to the world’s largest and most important collection of drawings by this artist. This exhibition also includes valuable international loan works in order to present Dürer’s drawn, printed, and painted oeuvres as equally great artistic achievements. And with reference to the distinctive works on exhibit, the exhibition also offers insights into the latest research findings.

The works by Albrecht Dürer at the Albertina are of particular interest in terms of the collection’s history: their provenance can be traced back to the year of the artist’s death in an unbroken line. The museum thus holds a group of works from the artist’s own workshop that have been together for nearly 500 years. Prominent here are Dürer’s family portraits, his famous studies of animals and plants, and his head, hand, and clothing studies on colored paper. The Albertina’s Dürer collection thus offers the ideal starting point from which to reconstruct the activities of Dürer’s workshop and also explore this artist’s personal, early humanist notion of art.

(From the museum’s website)

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), “Praying Hands” (1508), Pen-and-Ink Drawing on Paper, 29x20cm, Albertina, Vienna.

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528)

Albrecht Dürer  (1471–1528), “Saint Jerome” (1521), Oil on Panel, 60x48cm, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lissabon.

On the 21st of May, 1471, birth of Albrecht Dürer, painter, drawer and printmaker, and one of the key artists of the Northern Renaissance.  Dürer’s printmaking has been of immense influence on generations of painters, all of whom had printmakers copy their works in prints, to be able to distribute their art. Dürer was born in Nuremberg, Germany, where his father was a successful goldsmith. He made a few trips to Italy and contributed greatly to the exchange of knowledge and skills between the Italian and Northern Renaissance. Back in Germany Dürer dedicated himself to printmaking, mainly woodcuts and engravings, turning printmaking into an art of its own right. Dürer is considered one of the most famous artists of his time.

Here is Dürer’s painting of Saint Jerome. It’s more a portrait of an old wise man and only little details like the inkpot and bookrest remind us that this is a scholar sitting in his study. Saint Jerome was a Christian theologian, best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin. But look how he is pointing at the skull. Saint Jerome reminds us of our mortality and the vanity of earthly life and goods.

The Albertina in Vienna keeps four of Dürer’s preparatory sketches for the painting; see hereunder. Dürer’s handwritten note on the drawing of the Saint Jerome’s head, gives us information about the model: “The man was 93 years old and still healthy”. The three other sketches are details of the painting, all brush drawings on gray violet primed paper highlighted in white tempera, and from 1521, Fotos: © Albertina, Vienna.

Albrecht Dürer  (1471–1528), “Study of a Man Aged 93” (1521), 42x28cm, Albertina, Vienna.