Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 26, 2004
Mark A. Meadow Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric Zwolle, Netherlands: Waanders, 2004. 176 pp. Cloth $60.00 (904009473X)

Mark Meadow begins his book on Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the practice of rhetoric with a rhetorical exercise of his own: an exordium, a commencement on the artist’s identity, on the contours of rhetorical education in sixteenth-century Netherlandish culture, and on his own art-historical method. Like the sixteenth-century humanist Domenicus Lampsonius, Meadows asks, Who is this new Hieronymus Bosch called Pieter Bruegel? Although much of the painter’s biography escapes us, Meadow rightly argues that the artist’s painting Netherlandish Proverbs reveals that Bruegel was well versed in the art of persuasion and quite capable of imaginatively manipulating rhetorical tropes in erudite ways.

Directly above the artist’s signature in this painting, a crouching figure carries a lantern, like his mind, dimly lit. According to Meadow, Bruegel’s playful suggestion of his own intellectual weakness should not be taken at face value—he was no Droll Pieter. Although Bruegel’s gesture implies a lack of knowledge, the figure is not naïve or unlettered. On the contrary, this depiction conveys the recognition of a learned ignorance and an appreciation for the humanist virtues of humility and modesty. The painter hobnobbed with Antwerp’s wealthiest and noblest citizens, and, like all members of Antwerp’s painters’ guild, he also belonged to the De Violieren, or Gillyflowers, the city’s rederijkkamer (rhetoric chamber).

Rather than focus on issues associated with attribution or iconographical meaning, Meadow claims to concentrate on matters of function. To be more precise, the author hopes to discover how Bruegel’s painting participated in the production of knowledge, how it helped to shape epistemological practices. As an alternative to Erwin Panofsky’s iconology, Meadow’s synchronic study of visual rhetoric promises to address the role of the painting in altering how the world is seen and understood. It should be noted, however, that such an approach is not radically new. It resonates well with neo-Kantian efforts to understand how the mind constitutes its world, including Panofsky’s preoccupation with mental habits and Weltanschauungen. This is not to discredit Meadow’s argument, but is offered to keep his own rhetoric in check by inferring that his method is closer to Panofsky’s approach than he suggests. Although Meadow concentrates on the image’s affective powers of persuasion and does not interpret the painting as either a passive illustration or a cultural symptom, his remarks, for good or bad, can still readily be subsumed within the general parameters of a neo-Kantian project, for ultimately, Bruegel’s work is studied to interpret patterns of sixteenth-century thought.

In the first chapter, Meadow argues for a close interpretation of the painting. Although Bruegel’s work takes proverbs literally, painting them in vivid naturalistic detail, the picture is neither straightforward nor simple in definition. Multiple proverbs can be revealed by the same figure. Many of the proverbs shown are ambiguous; they can have positive and negative connotations simultaneously. Rather than search for clear identifications of particular proverbs, or look for an accurate count of representations, or hope to discover a single all-encompassing theme, Meadow instead studies pictorial juxtapositions and clustered grouping of proverbs. Thus Bruegel’s painting is interpreted as an opportunity for rhetorical play in the act of looking. Like a picture puzzle, the image invites viewers to thread proverbs together to elucidate meanings and process knowledge. The painting provides beholders with a visual analogue of an orator’s memory palace, a place where they can organize their thoughts for future recall. The telltale location of striking figures is designed to trigger associations within this repertoire of rhetorical possibilities.

Meadow addresses the history and function of Netherlandish proverbs in the second chapter. The use of these adages crosses boundaries between elite and popular culture, between oral and written culture, and between visual and verbal culture. Their meanings were not fixed, but rather were fluid and flexible to suit contextual need. To fit the occasion, proverbs were sometimes presented in Latin and/or in the vernacular, and they were also promoted by those in a variety of vocations, including teachers, preachers, and lawyers. Although condensed into few words, proverbs were invaluable. They could stimulate conversation and offer crucial points of persuasion. Not only could the use of proverbs improve one’s rhetorical skills, but they could also advance virtue and encourage mental agility. Throughout the sixteenth century, Northern humanists collected proverbs in order to acquire deeper knowledge and to retain ideas. Bruegel’s painting, like the albums described below, provided commonplaces to pique the imagination and organize one’s thoughts.

In the third chapter, Meadow investigates the nexus between knowledge and place in sixteenth-century rhetoric. Erasmus, Rudolph Agricola, and Juan Luis Vives all encouraged their readers to produce copious notes arranged in a book or album. This handy tool was used to help improve rhetorical skills by offering a readily accessible gathering place for thoughts and memories. Bruegel and his humanist patrons would have been familiar with this “notebook system” of arranging these rhetorical aphorisms. This organizational practice, Meadows suggests, may also be akin to Bruegel’s working method.

The fourth chapter addresses Bruegel’s sources and the practice of emulation. Netherlandish Proverbs is based on Frans Hogenberg’s large etching of Dutch adages. However, Bruegel playfully reworked Hogenberg’s print in imaginative ways. The New Bosch did not merely mimic the work of his predecessors. On the contrary, his emulations suggest admiration for and competition with the models represented. As Meadows notes, emulation elicits notions of rebirth. Renaissance humanists were not only preoccupied with recuperating ancient ideals, but additionally with praising one another’s sophisticated accomplishments, outperforming anything from the past.

In addition, Bruegel’s powers of emulation may have extended beyond his appropriation of other artists to nature itself. Like an early modern Kunstkammer, Bruegel’s oeuvre embodies the marvels both of art and nature, and his interest in nature and his naturalistic style evoked much wonder in his day. In Abraham Ortelius’s epitaph to Bruegel, the Antwerp geographer claimed that the artist died prematurely because Nature jealously feared his creative abilities. The imitation of nature, it is suggested, demands incredible artifice, making Bruegel the ideal or “natural” artist for others to imitate.

In conclusion, Meadow argues that Netherlandish Proverbs should not be interpreted as a visual sermon but as a conversation piece, analogous to books assembling ideas and memories for oration. Like a page from a humanist notebook, Bruegel’s witty painting collects valuable information for knowledge, organizes that information spatially for greater retention, and offers it for a variety of possible applications. Bruegel’s painting presents a multiplicity of proverbs for viewers to study, as it also encourages beholders to look and learn from Bruegel’s rhetorical play, to produce and gather ideas and memories in imaginative ways.

Meadow’s erudite interpretation of Netherlandish Proverbs is quite compelling. However, he tends to underestimate the place of ethics in rhetoric and interpretation. Although Bruegel’s painting should not be viewed as a didactic sermon, the proverbs themselves make little sense without the common ground of shared norms concerning the ways of the world and the way it ought to be. The painting may elicit multiple meanings and may have helped to process knowledge, but those possibilities are framed within a network of cultural expectations and social convictions. In other words, although the reception of Netherlandish Proverbs may have enhanced rhetorical skills, and done so in ways analogous to adage albums and cabinets of wonder, the painting also actively invites its viewers to imagine their proper place in this world in preparation for the next.

Henry M. Luttikhuizen
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Calvin College