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Richardson, Todd M., Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Art Discourse in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands.

Richardson, Todd M., Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Art Discourse in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands (Visual Culture in Early Modernity), Farnham, Ashgate, 2011; hardback; pp. 268; 8 colour, 86 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. 65.00 [pounds sterling]; ISBN 9780754668169.

As Todd Richardson points out in his preface, the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder have been the subject of continuous research since Karel van Mander first included him in his account of Dutch and Flemish painters in 1604. His works have been fruitfully mined for evidence of popular cultural activities, children's games, political commentary, religious ideas, and artistic innovation, as well as the use of humour. Richardson's new book, Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Art Discourse in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands, joins a recent plethora of publications on this fascinating artist.

In this book, Richardson examines several works by Bruegel, all dating from the last years of Bruegel's life. While these works do focus on what we now identify as genre scenes, they are distinctive in their unusual depictions of peasant life, both in their scale and in the monumentality he gives to these figures. They challenge our preconceptions of such imagery. Richardson is interested in the 'visual interaction between artists', and argues that Bruegel's works, while being generally identified with a regional, vernacular style, in fact reflect a knowledge of broader international trends in art making, including Italian ideas and motifs. In some ways, the most ambitious elements of this project is Richardson's interest in the responses these works provoked and how pictorial strategies chosen challenged the viewer's 'analytical capacities'.

In the first chapter, Richardson looks at contemporary writings by Lucas De Heere and Abraham Ortelius, locating their ideas within interests running concurrently through wider artistic debates. These included discussions about art and nature and the cultivation of a vernacular language and poetry that responded to classical models. This exploration provides a more nuanced understanding of these writings, and suggests an alternative understanding of the visual arts, recognizing the adaption of Italianate forms for a Netherlandish visual mode.

In the second chapter, Richardson also considers the placement of these works in the homes of Bruegel's patrons. He looks at the collectors Jean Noirot and Nichlaes Jongelinck. Both were wealthy merchants and information for the former's collection comes from bankruptcy documents. We know, for example, that he hung four of Bruegel's works--one of which was the Peasant Wedding Banquet--together with the Noirot family portraits in the back dining room. Jongelinck hung Bruegel's paintings of the Secrets of the Seasons and Frans Floris's more classically influenced work, the cycle of the Labours of Hercules together, along with scenes of the Judgement of Paris and the three cardinal virtues. Both collectors reflect the growing trend amongst the middle classes to include more expensive art works in the public spaces of their homes, particularly the dining room, emulating the cultural elite. No incongruity was seen in mixing peasant scenes with classically inspired works. Richardson suggests that this trend also followed the fashion for enlightening table conversation, after the model provided by such books as Erasmus's Convivia, and such classical models as Plato and Plutarch.

In his discussion of the Peasant Wedding Banquet, Richardson continues this theme, pointing out the contrasts between the single-minded eating of the peasants attending the feast and the conversation taking place between a monk and the landowner at the end of the table. The variety of figures and activities would have provided ready fodder for dinner conversation. In this chapter and the following three Richardson provides a closer reading of the individual works chosen. For example, in this chapter he considers the device of the table that is displayed diagonally, in a fashion normally reserved for images of the wedding at Cana. Similarly, the treatment of the figures has a monumentality and an audacity of composition that is more expected in historia, or in the carefully placed figure studies found in the paintings by such artists as Raphael. Just as Pleiade poetics argued for a classically nuanced vernacular language, here Bruegel has drawn on the lessons gained from Italian art to reframe a vernacular genre painting. Similar discoveries are made with each example.

One oddity about this study, given the welcome use of careful visual analysis, is the absence of some rudimentary information about the scale of the works. In his discussion of the Peasant and the Nest Robber, Richardson remarks that the work is noticeably different in size from the previous works he has discussed, yet no sizes are provided, nor does he inform us whether this work is smaller or larger in scale. The book reads like a thesis; there is an excessive repetition of the arguments being made, and a presumption of specialized knowledge. He presumes we know the meaning of kermis, and does not define it despite asking what is the nature of a kermis in the Introduction. On the whole, though, these are minor flaws in a thoughtful and scholarly book with a welcome exploration of the visual language found in the works of Bruegel.

Judith Collard

Department of History and Art History The University of Otago
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Author:Collard, Judith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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