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Larry Silver, Pieter Bruegel. New York and London: Abbeville Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7892-1104-0.  424 pp. Hbk. $150.00

Reviewed by Amy Orrock

[1]  The recent rediscovery in Spain of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Wine of St. Martin’s Day is the latest in a series of developments contributing to a revival of interest in the Netherlandish master, famed for his captivating depictions of peasants cavorting within atmospheric landscapes. ‘Bruegel’ today is a brand in every sense – drawing crowds to museums and galleries across the world and stimulating large amounts of research and publications, from the scholarly to the whimsical. Into this weighs Larry Silver’s tome, replete with 355 high quality colour illustrations, which rightly declares its central purpose to be the contemplation of pictures. Silver freely admits to standing on the shoulders of giants, drawing on recent scholarly catalogues of the artist’s paintings (Sellink, 2007; Marijnessen, 1988, reissued in 2003) prints (Orenstein, 2001) and drawings (Mielke, 1996). The book’s real achievement lies in the author’s light touch; these catalogues are synthesized with other recent research to create an updated overview of the artist’s entire oeuvre that is wide-ranging and readable, and will appeal to specialists and newcomers alike.

[2]  The book is well organised, with all of Bruegel’s authentic works discussed in a loosely chronological order. A framework of eleven thematic chapters enables Silver to speculate upon disputed attributions and lost works, and to pay attention to the wider economic, religious, political and social circumstances of the period, without ever straying too far from the appropriate chronology. The grand panel depicting the Procession to Calvary is the focus of the first chapter; Bruegel’s sweeping, multi-narrative treatment of a biblical subject here provides an excellent introduction to the kinds of issues encountered when studying the artist. In Chapter 2 Silver surveys the scant documentary evidence to outline what is known of Bruegel’s biography, taking him from his humble beginnings as a landscape artist and ‘Second Bosch’, whose birthplace and date are unknown, through his career in Antwerp and Brussels, to his patronage by Antwerp’s elite and the praise which proliferated after his sudden death in 1565. Bruegel’s commercial concerns are further fleshed out in chapter 3 with a discussion of his involvement with Hieronymous Cock’s printing house ‘At the Sign of the Four Winds’, where Bruegel progressed from having his drawings used as models for Cock’s designs (Landscape with Bears) and passed-off as the work of Bosch (Big Fish Eat Little Fish) to finally being credited as an ‘inventor’ in his own right (the first being The Ass in School).

[3]  Chapter 4 marks the chronological beginning of Bruegel’s career, with a discussion of his development as a landscape artist following his trip to Italy in the mid 1550s. The topographical drawings that Bruegel produced during this trip were to form the backbone of many future compositions; he was famously described by Van Mander as having ‘swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again, after his return, onto his canvases and panels’. In this and subsequent chapters Silver uses Bruegel’s drawings or designs for prints as a starting point to explore themes also addressed in paintings: chapter 5 follows Bruegel’s Boschian designs for the print series the Seven Sins through to his fantastical paintings Dulle Griet and the Fall of the Rebel Angels, while chapter 6 demonstrates how the everyday worlds catalogued in panels such as The Combat Between Carnival and Lent, Netherlandish Proverbs and Children’s Games originated as settings for the Seven Virtues series of engravings.

[4]  In later chapters the book turns to Bruegel’s large-scale ‘Biblical’ narratives and images of festive peasants, some of his most contentious paintings. Here Silver deftly navigates his way through the historic debates on what these images might reveal about Bruegel’s own religious disposition and attitudes towards peasants, offering up some new perspectives while recognizing the contingencies inherent in interpreting an artist such as Bruegel. In chapter 8 a convincing case is made for a revised dating of the Triumph of Death (from c. 1562/3 to c. 1566/7) on the basis of its slender figure types and the impending military menace in the Netherlands. The author of Peasant Scenes and Landscapes (2006), Silver is well qualified to discuss peasant iconography and in chapter 9 two ‘lost’ Bruegel compositions, known today only through copies, serve to flesh out a discussion of the harmony and nostalgia often evident in Bruegel’s peasant scenes.

[5]  The book is particularly strong on comparative images. In chapter 2 the rich aesthetic rivalry that existed between the two main schools of Antwerp painting in the sixteenth century is aptly illustrated by images of ‘Bruegelian’ subjects by the Italianate Frans Floris. Elsewhere, a discussion of Bruegel as a printmaker is prefaced by an overview of the evolution of the practice and business of printmaking in the sixteenth century (chapter 3); works by Patinir, Cornelius Matsys and Venetian artists are used to shed light on Bruegel’s presentation of landscape (chapter 4); and altarpieces by Rogier van der Weyden and Bernart van Orley are cited to enlighten our understanding of Bruegel’s series of Seven Virtues (chapter 6).

[6]  Silver’s closing chapter, ‘Bruegel’s Legacy’, considers the reduction of Bruegel’s corpus in recent years, as more of his works are re-catalogued as the work of followers and forgers. While material addressing the artist’s most faithful copyist, his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger, has to an extent been superseded by Currie and Allart’s brilliantly illuminating three-volume technical publication The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon (2012), Silver’s appraisal nonetheless provides a useful, brief overview of Bruegel’s appeal to later generations of artists and collectors. Here, as in the earlier chapters, we are continually reminded that Bruegel existed within a contemporary marketplace and belonged to a diverse community of artists, craftsmen, engravers and publishers – a perspective often lost within the rarefied pantheon of ‘great artists’ to which he now belongs.

[7]  Bruegel’s complex compositions are keenly observed and richly detailed: they vividly bring the past to life and deserve to be looked at, and then looked at again. This lavish book looks and feels indulgent; revealing with thrillingly intimacy details of large panel paintings, including dress, gesture, facial expressions and under-drawing, it offers the closest thing to a museum experience. It is difficult to criticize such an ambitious undertaking, but the lack of a bibliography feels like an oversight in a work that professes to offer an overview of such a well-documented subject. A more minor complaint is the selection of image details in the opening chapter, where figures discussed in the Procession to Calvary are frustratingly not illustrated.

[8]  Nevertheless, taken together with Silver’s Hieronymous Bosch (2006), Pieter Bruegel presents a masterful survey of Northern Renaissance visual trends over a span of more than a century. The book provides a fabulous resource of images, supported by a lively text that re-engages with a much loved master, and is sure to inspire many more people to look again at Bruegel.

November 2012