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” 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.