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Finding Bruegel in Brussels and Antwerp

by Polly Allen

The Bruegels were a dynasty of incredibly talented Flemish artists who made their mark on the art world through drawing, painting and printing. There were almost as many spelling variations of their surname as there were specialisms in the Bruegel artistic oevre – whether you wanted a Biblical epic, a village gathering or a tranquil landscape, one of the family could provide it.

In 2019, it was the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death. The founder of the dynasty, he was remarkably prolific for someone who died in his forties, and several exhibitions in his native Flanders have paid tribute to his talent. Jan Brueghel the Elder, part of the second generation, took up the family trade; one Antwerp museum offers a unprecedented look at his drawings.

A Quick Biography of the Two Bruegels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder(c. 1525-1569) was famous for his paintings, prints and drawings. He joined the painters’ Guild of St. Luke, in Antwerp, in 1551. Bruegel’s subjects included Flemish village life, rural landscapes, and Biblical and mythical scenes (such as The Tower of Babel, 1563). His interest in depicting everyday people – for example, in Peasant Wedding, 1568 - led to the nickname ‘peasant Bruegel’. He spent the last six years of his life in Brussels, and was buried there.

Jan Brueghel the Elder(1568-1625) was the son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and a contemporary of Peter Paul Rubens. He was raised by his grandmother and travelled widely, including a three-year stint in Italy with Cardinal Federigo Borromeo as his patron. Jan Brueghel joined the Guild of St. Luke in 1597, and went onto paint at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, and rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Archduke Albert of Austria and the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain.

You can take in both artists with a trip to Flanders, just a short hop from the UK on the Eurostar.

Back to Bruegel: Experience the 16thCentury- Halle Gate, Brussels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the focus of this immersive exhibition at the historic Halle Gate, part of the Royal Museums of Art and History. Virtual reality technology helps you feel closer to Bruegel’s 16thcentury world.

The VR headsets can be a little cumbersome at first, but once you get used to them, you’ll adjust to the animated scenes playing out in front of your eyes.

Some Bruegel works have been reproduced on huge display boards, helping you hone in on the tiny details you’d otherwise miss. The recurring themes of his paintings are also put in historical context with related artefacts and the accompanying guide. A Bruegel painting can tell you the kind of games children played at the time, or the obsession with exploration in the New World.

The Halle Gate dates back beyond Bruegel’s day, with its origins in the 14thcentury. Make sure you take the time to walk all the way up the spiral staircase and see panoramic views of Brussels from the battlement walk along the ramparts.

Back to Bruegel: Experience the 16thCentury runs at the Halle Gate Museum, Boulevard du Midi 150, Brussels, from 18 October 2019 – 18 October 2020. Tickets cost €12; concessions are available.

The World of Bruegel in Black and White– KBR, Brussels

KBR, the National Library of Belgium, hosts a landmark exhibition of prints by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which includes preparatory sketches, the printmaking process, 60 original Bruegel prints from copperplate engravings, and prints by others imitating his style. There’s even a tribute by graffiti artist Phlegm, who has made his mark on the outside of the building as well as in its exhibition rooms.

Bruegel’s printmaking took off thanks to his working relationship with publisher Hieronymus Cock. The mid to late 16thcentury saw Flanders as the epicentre of print culture, where prints were produced and sold. Hieronymus Cock was the most prominent publisher at the time (though for the benefit of gender balance, you should note that Cock’s wife, Volcxken Diericx, helped run their publishing house in Antwerp and managed it for 30 years after her husband’s death).

The exhibition has some great interactive elements for children, getting them involved in brass rubbing, grabbing replica prints, and learning about the technology behind the printing processes from Bruegel’s day.

A further section of the exhibition takes place in the adjoining Palace of Charles of Lorraine, which creates a very different backdrop from the deliberately blank canvas of the library’s exhibition space. The curators emphasise different aspects of Bruegel’s artistry, like his portrayal of the Seven Deadly Sins and its relation to society and his personal life at the time. Some of his visions are truly nightmarish; others are witty and cheeky; despite their antiquity, they usually feel relatable. Were he alive today, Bruegel would probably create cover art for The New Yorker, make graphic novels, or hang out with graffiti artists like Phlegm and Banksy.

The World of Bruegel in Black and Whiteruns at KBR, Mont Des Arts 28, Brussels, from 15 October 2019 – 16 February 2020. Tickets cost €12; concessions are available.

Madonna Meets Mad Meg: Masterpieces and Their Collectors– Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

Mad Meg, or Dulle Griet, is another Pieter Bruegel the Elder masterpiece, restored in 2018. It’s a vast painting, crammed with layer upon layer of people and creatures in chaos, depicting a story from Flemish folklore. Meg, or Griet, has a haunted expression as she runs away in the foreground, clutching a basket; the mouth of hell is open behind her, and a village is being ransacked.

The restoration process revealed that the painting was far more colourful originally – what had become a palette of browns and reds had contained plenty of blue, green and purple. Seeing Mad Megas it looked 450 years ago is a privilege.

This dramatic painting is naturally the main attraction at Museum Mayer van den Bergh, where it forms part of the huge art collection accumulated by Fritz Mayer van den Bergh in the 19thcentury. His untimely death, which came before he could see his collection displayed in a museum, left his grieving mother to design a museum next to the family home.

The works on permanent display are described by museum director Carl Depauw as “great pieces of art on a human scale”. Because the museum is in a historic building, only the ground floor is wheelchair accessible, which is a shame, as there’s a lot to enjoy here.

Madonna Meets Mad Meg also covers the collection of Florent van Ertborn, a burgomaster who left his entire art haul to the city of Antwerp, where they were acquired by what is now known as the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (currently closed for renovation).

Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Cherubim and Seraphim, c.1454-56, is the star of van Ertborn’s collection. This very surreal take on the Madonna and child scene sees the mother and baby painted a ghostly milk white as she breastfeeds Jesus. The Biblical nursing scene, referred to as Madonna Lactans, was popular amongst Medieval and Renaissance artists. The whole image is stuffed with curves, from the Madonna’s alarmingly perky breasts to the blue and red cherubs crowded behind her throne, their heads like little bowling balls.

Allow yourself plenty of time to absorb the whole exhibition. There’s even the opportunity to taste a painting – or at least taste one of the foods depicted in a painting. It’s a case of Russian roulette, as you might get a vanilla-flavoured sweet or something less delicious.

Madonna Meets Mad Meg: Masterpieces and Their Collectorsruns at the Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Lange Gasthuisstraat 19, Antwerp, from 5 October 2019 – 31 December 2020. Tickets cost €8; concessions are available.

Jan Brueghel the Elder: A Magnificent Draughtsman– Snijders&Rockox House, Antwerp

When the father you never met has left a legacy of incredible art, and you’ve inherited his artistic talent, there’s only one thing you can do: build your own legacy with great work. Jan Brueghel did just that, diversifying to many different subjects as his father before him. He also became famous for floral still life paintings, and earned the nickname ‘velvet Brueghel’ thanks to his depiction of luxurious textures.

This exhibition takes on Jan Brueghel’s drawings and paintings, including intricate copies of his father’s engravings that describe ships’ masts reaching high above the low land, or rural scenes dotted with the occasional building. Pieces have been loaned from the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and many others, though some haven’t travelled far; A Coach on a Country Road, created circa 1589-1625, is normally found at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp.

One of the most distinctive drawings is Jan Brueghel’s earliest-known work, View of Heidelberg, dating back to 1588-89. This piece was made en route to Italy, and features sweeping washes of blue and brown behind a spidery pen sketch of the town, its castle and elegant bridge.

With 80 artworks on show in quite a small space, this is one visit you’ll prefer to make outside of peak times so you can really get close to the displays here.

Jan Brueghel the Elder: A Magnificent Draughtsmanruns at Snijders&Rockox House, Keizerstraat 10, Antwerp, from 5 October 2019 – 26 January 2020. Tickets cost €8; concessions are available.

Where to Stay

Brussels:Hotel Le Plaza(Boulevard Adolphe Maxlaan 118-126) is one for fans of traditional luxury, and it’s been granted the Belgian Royal Warrant as a mark of quality. Previous guests included Charles Aznavour and Josephine Baker. The hotel even has three beehives on the roof, making homemade Plaza honey which is served at breakfast.

Antwerp:Hotel Rubens(Oude Beurs 29) is a stylish and quiet place to stay in the city centre, with a delicious free breakfast offered daily to guests. Just a few steps from the Grote Markt and the Cathedral, the hotel is also close to the best local art galleries and museums.


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