Pieter Bruegel painted in the midst of a cultural tornado that swept Western Europe in the 1500’s. The power of the Catholic church was eroded by the humanism and intellectualism that spread from Italy’s High Renaissance and the new Protestant reformation.
Bruegel’s early work was an almost perfect mirror of the demonological themes that Heironymus Bosch had pioneered and had become wildly popular throughout the Netherlands. Birds-eye views of battles between angels and fish-faced demons — Bruegel was following the religious obsession of his culture.
But in 1565, when Bruegel was 40 years old, he found a new focus. After traveling to Italy, Antwerp, and finally settling in Brussels, Bruegel decided to paint people. Perhaps influenced by the growth of ‘heretical’ Calvinism, or simply the maturing of a successful artist, Bruegel began to dress as a peasant, and socialize at rural weddings and festivals. His work changed dramatically, with a new focus on the seasons, and the honest toil of the working classes.
Bruegel was the first in a dynasty of Flemish painters, and is one of the clearest examples of the evolving role of an artist — from a conduit of religious dogma, to an independent interpreter of culture. His sons Peiter and Jan Bruegel would take up the brush after him, though they were still young when their father died, and their work would always lack the refinement and pragmatic worldview of their father’s final works.
Reed Enger, "Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The peasant life is the humanist ideal," in Obelisk Art History, Published June 07, 2015; last modified May 21, 2018, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/pieter-bruegel-the-elder/.