Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 29, 1999
Ethan Matt Kavaler Pieter Bruegel: Parables of Order and Enterprise, Cambridge Studies in Netherlandish Visual Culture Cambridge University Press, 1999. 403 pp.; 139 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0521622670)

With A. E. Popham’s publication in 1932 of Abraham Ortelius’s epitaph on Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the traditional figure of Droll Bruegel, of Peasant Bruegel, was soon replaced by Bruegel the peintre philosophe, as Charles de Tolnay characterized him in his monograph of 1935. It is thus understandable that scholars have sought to locate Bruegel’s “audience” among the intellectual circles of Antwerp, especially Ortelius and his colleagues, the classical scholars around Christophe Plantin, and the poets and dramatists associated with the rederijkers.

Yet rather scant attention has been devoted to one of the most important groups of Antwerp’s citizens: the businessmen whose energy and enterprise lifted the city to her pinnacle of wealth and glory during Bruegel’s lifetime. Only recently has this “merchant culture” entered our discourse on Bruegel to any significant extent, most notably in essays by Larry Silver and Ethan Matt Kavaler in the recent Bruegel volume of the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (vol. 47, 1996). Now Kavaler expands on this topic in the present book.

His first chapter describes in detail Antwerp’s merchant society and its ethos, founded upon profit, labor, diligence, and a rejection of the traditional ideals of communal behavior that is well summed up in the motto of one businessman, “Every man for himself.” Most significantly, this merchant community had many ties with Antwerp’s leading literary and intellectual circles. Businessmen, for example, participated in the rederijker chambers of Antwerp; several businessmen helped finance Ortelius’s famous atlas, the Theatrum orbis terrarum; and Ortelius’s colleague Peeter Heyns ran a girls’ school that enrolled the daughters of many of Antwerp’s commercial families. Above all, businessmen were among the major patrons of Antwerp artists, including Pieter Bruegel. We have long known about Niclaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy merchant and royal tax collector, who owned at least sixteen pictures by Bruegel, including his largest extant painting, the Christ Carrying the Cross of 1564, as well as the series of the Labors of the Months, done the following year.

To Jonghelinck, we can now add the notorious Jean Noirot, a former Master of the Mint, whose bankruptcy led to the auction of his estate in 1572: his collection included a large number of paintings by leading Flemish artists of the day, among them five by Bruegel, four of which depicted peasant revels. None of these, alas, can be securely identified with existing works, but several of Noirot’s Bruegels must have been major ones, for they were evaluated at fairly high prices for the auction (not, as Kavaler assumes, the prices realized in the auction itself, which were probably considerably less than the evaluations).

Jonghelinck and Noirot were not alone. Other merchants in Antwerp, and elsewhere in the Netherlands, also acquired paintings, on the same scale, and their taste was catholic, ranging from religious, allegorical, and mythological subjects to folkloric themes popularized by Bruegel and his colleagues. Surrounded in their homes by a wealth of paintings—and prints displayed as pictures—it is very likely, Kavaler concludes, reasonably, that the merchant class possessed a sophisticated understanding of pictorial imagery and could well understand the subtleties of Bruegel’s art. This commercial milieu, no less than the artists, writers, and intellectuals, constituted an important part of Bruegel’s audience. His art, Kavaler argues, addressed the hopes, fears, and social tensions generated by Antwerp’s mercantile capitalism, as well as the political and religious turmoil that ultimately led to the Eighty Years’ War.

In other chapters Kavaler analyzes at length a selection of Bruegel’s works, which we may see, as he puts it, “partly as a means of comprehending and coping with shifting ideologies, as a medium of crisis management” (p. 1). If the Fall of Icarus, for example, reaffirms the traditional interpretation of Ovid’s story of Icarus’s disastrous flight too close to the sun as a warning against pride and ambition, then the ploughman who labors on, ignoring the hapless Icarus, exemplifies the upper class ideal of the common man (gemeynen man) who remains content with his modest lot in life. Bruegel’s Elck drawing is a critique of eigenbaet, the seeking after personal gain at the expense of common well-being so often castigated by writers of the period, as well as its roots in the lack of self-knowledge. Kavaler convincingly demonstrates that the purblind merchant with the lantern in the foreground is an ironical allusion to Diogenes, who abandoned the world for a higher realm of existence. Similarly, the print Battle of the Piggy Banks and Strongboxes (containing material previously published in the 1996 Bruegel volume essay) vividly satirizes not only individual merchant self-seekers, but a whole society, rich and poor alike, for whom the pursuit of eigenbaet has become a behavioral norm.

Bruegel’s Battle of Carnival and Lent provides the occasion for an extended discussion of folkloric themes popular in the sixteenth-century Netherlands, including some subjects that Kavaler traces back to inventions of Hieronymus Bosch. Bruegel’s picture condemns neither Carnival nor Lent, but is basically tolerant; any deeper meaning resides in the couple in the center walking away from us, preceded by a fool with a torch. This couple may represent the middle way between the worldly life and a more spiritual existence. For Kavaler, this is no clear-cut allegory of good and evil, but rather “one of Bruegel’s frequent invitations to self-inquiry and self- regulation” (p. 148).

Kavaler sees this indeterminacy of meaning as the hallmark of Bruegel’s art, at least for the works considered in this volume. In his introduction and elsewhere in the book, Kavaler speaks of Bruegel’s ambiguity and irony, as well as the oppositions and irreconcilable interests that he presents the viewer. Kavaler believes that the “riddlelike quality” of Bruegel’s paintings “suggests a level of meaning beyond the obvious” (p. 257). Kavaler thus places each work within a broadly sketched cultural context that suggests the ideals and the ethical and social ideas that inform Bruegel’s art, and the responses that he might have wanted to elicit from his audience. Some of Bruegel’s meaning, Kavaler argues, also resides in the nuances of what we might call Bruegel’s “visual rhetoric.” These include the use of peripheral details that qualify the meaning of the central image, the division of a composition between two opposing sides, and the use of the center for a motif that affects the meaning of the whole composition. The last two devices, for example, are employed in the Battle between Carnival and Lent.

This sense of the artist’s equivocation, of his reluctance to resolve issues for the viewer, and his compositional strategies: these two guidelines govern Kavaler’s reading, for example, of the two peasant scenes in Vienna. The Peasant Wedding Banquet reflects the interaction between city and countryside as it existed in Bruegel’s day and also presents, in microcosm, “a type of utopian image, an icon of a coherent social structure cherished, perhaps, amid the disintegration of an existing order” (p. 183). Conversely, the Peasant Kermis presents a more negative image of peasant revelry; it perhaps invites us to observe the “natural and ineluctable opposition between consideration and impulse, reason and desire” (p. 211), an invitation focalized in the figure of the fool in the middle ground.

The design of the Magpie on the Gallows “is unusually complex, structured around a series of relationships between individual motifs” (p. 220), but its ultimate message is the need for discretion and self-control in troubled times, in both speech and action. The Beekeepers, a drawing in Berlin, pits the individualistic ethos of the boy stealing a nest at upper right against the organized communal action of the beekeepers; while in the Nest Robber, the nest-robber is opposed to the farmer whose own situation is difficult to define, but the picture, Kavaler tells us, presents “a world in conflict, in which interests of different groups are opposed and standards of behavior are in dispute” (p. 254).

Through detailed readings of these and other works, Kavaler concludes that Bruegel was essentially a political and social conservative, suspicious of emerging capitalism with its materialism and rampant individualism, and harboring a nostalgia for an idealized traditional order, one whose social hierarchy and communal practices were stable and familiar. Kavaler’s approach to Bruegel’s imagery may frustrate readers expecting a precise “deciphering” of his paintings and drawings, but at least it offers a welcome antidote to many earlier Bruegelstudien (the title of Carl Stridbeck’s 1956 volume), which often force Bruegel’s art into clear-cut but ill-fitting iconographical programs. In any event, this provocative but thoughtful and well-informed book contributes much to our understanding of the artist and his times.

Walter S. Gibson
Andrew W, Mellon Professor of Humanities Emeritus, Case Western Reserve University