In 1565 Pieter Bruegel painted a series of paintings dedicated to the months of the year. He broke the cycle of the year into six stages in six paintings, two months per painting, one of these paintings have been lost, five remain. Some of these paintings, including Hunters in the Snow and The Harvesters, are among the most outstanding and widely discussed paintings in Bruegel’s oeuvre. For Bruegel these paintings were an ambitious undertaking, they were ahead of their time and unconventional in terms of landscape painting norms of the time. The series was commissioned by the Antwerp merchant Nicolaes Longelink, who possessed a number of other paintings by Bruegel. Towards the end of the 16th century the paintings were bought by the City of Antwerp as a gift to the Archduke Ernst of Austria for his ceremonious entry into the city. By the time of their gift, Bruegel’s reputation as a landscape painter was of very high measure, which can explain why they were used as such a prestigious gift. The paintings were passed down through generations of the archduke’s family in Prague and Vienna, but by 1659, one of the paintings had already been lost. The five that survived remained in Vienna until the 19th century, at which point paintings were separated from the series and ended up in different collections. Three of them are still in Vienne, part of the large Bruegel collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
One of the beautiful aspects of these paintings, as with much of Bruegel’s work, is that before one even registers the content of the piece, the carefully chosen colors create the mood and light of each month. Notice the gold of The Harvesters compared to the icy greens, greys and whites of Hunters in the Snow, or the blacks and dark earth tones of The Gloomy Day. Each of the paintings is a depiction of country life, and as with many Bruegel compositions there is often an action in the foreground occurring at an angle into the painting, the action carries the eye into the painting and out across the vastness of the skillfully painted landscape of details and miniature actions. Notice the angle of the Herd in The Return of the Herd, the people carrying baskets in Haymaking, the hunters in Hunters in the Snow. With Hunters in the Snow there is even a bird in flight at an angle, about to soar out over the landscape of the painting, helping to carry the eye out and over. In The Return of the Herd a black bird sits perched at the top of the canvas, one can imagine how if the paintings were displayed side by side, the bird could become a visual cue that carries the eye from one season into the next, where the bird takes flight from the branch and descends like the falling leaf into winter.
What I often enjoy so much about Bruegel’s work is how they reward extended viewing. One can look at these paintings and continue to notice new things, new little details or overlooked actions, tiny cues or symbols. In this recent viewing of Haymaking I took notice of the six bowls of what looks like either apples or potatoes sitting atop the wicker basket of greens at the very bottom of the canvas. To me this seems a subtle way of depicting six circles inside a larger circle, which could stand as a visual representation of the project Bruegel is undertaking – separating the large cycle of the year into six sections. These Bruegel paintings are magical this way, entertaining and beautiful.