Uncovering Everyday Life: From Bosch to Bruegel

Last week I visited the opening of Uncovering Everyday Life: From Bosch to Bruegel. The exhibition poster was already a good enough reason to jump on a train to Rotterdam, and when I read that the Museo del Prado agreed to send Bosch’s Haywain to the Netherlands — my Saturday plans were clear. As I was getting ready for the exhibition I couldn’t believe my luck when I read:

Five panels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder are travelling to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen from all over the world for ‘Uncovering Everyday Life — From Bosch to Bruegel’. Visitors to the exhibition will have the unique opportunity to see six panels by this sixteenth-century old master together in Rotterdam. Never before have so many Bruegels been gathered together. ‘The Pig Must Go in the Sty’ (1557), owned by a private collector, makes its first ever appearance in an exhibition.
Exhibition poster

My fascination with Bosch began at an early age. By an early age — I mean just that. When I was a tiny baby sleeping in my parent’s bedroom, Bosch’s reproduction of the Garden of Earthly Delights was hanging on the wall next to my bed.

To all of you readers — who didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s - the fact that my parents had a Bosch reproduction might seem totally normal, but let me assure you — it wasn’t. A Bosch reproduction in full colour was rare and impossible to get. Upon entering the room, the first place any guest went to was the reproduction. How puzzling that you can look at this painting for years, and still manage to find new and exciting details.

It is safe to say that due to my short height and the reception of everyone around me of the reproduction, I wasn’t scarred for life by the images. I knew this painting was cool even before I could figure out what it was actually about.

My fascination with Bosch continued: I studied the art of the Middle Ages, moved to the Netherlands to study Dutch and Flemish illuminated manuscripts, and worked my way up the the 15th, 16th and 17th century Netherlandish art. And then, earlier this year, I stumbled upon Bosch 500!

The city of Den Bosch will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of the Netherlands’ most important medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450- 1516) in 2016 with the international Jheronimus Bosch 500 event. His era and themes will be brought back to life by a wide range of festive events with his work as an unending source of inspiration: exceptional music, dance, theatre and circus productions, exhibitions, projects in public spaces, lightshows, books, games and apps. But also scientific research, restorations and the unique exhibition Jheronimus Bosch — Visions of a genius (13 February — 8 May 2016). In this way, Jheronimus Bosch 500 brings the city’s most famous son back to Den Bosch where, at his family’s studio, he devised and created his works.

You can read the rest of the press release here.

‘What can be better than that?’ Bosch themed products — of course! Nothing says you love art louder than a fridge filled with art magnets from around the world.

Local studio from Den Bosch — Studio Kluif — created a stunning identity for Bosch 500. It’s been a while since I saw something this exciting happening in the museum world. Irma Boom’s Rijksmuseum was over two years ago, and Wolff Olins perfect identity for Tate was created back in 2000!

While searching online for everything Bosch, I was introduced to what now is — one of my most cherished Dutch design ideas — IXXI. IXXI design, along with Prado Museum, bring the Garden of Earthly Delights to the modern home. I believe that even now, 500 years after this painting was finished, if you hang this masterpiece on your wall — every visitor will spend some time looking at the details. It is too hypnotic to pass by without noticing.


I couldn’t wait for 2016, and I guess neither could Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam! On October 10th Boijmans opened one of their best exhibitions I’ve seen so far. Rarely I manage to visit an opening of an exhibition, but this time I made it. At 11AM on a Saturday morning, with a silly grin on my face, I was waiting for the doors to open. To my amazement the admission was free and despite my constant questions of — ‘no, but really — where do I pay?’ — friendly staff directed me towards the stairs leading to the exhibition.

For many reasons this exhibition, might be the best exhibition I’ve seen in this museum. Knowing the great collection of prints available at the Boijmans, I can only imagine how difficult it was for the curator to scale down to the chosen prints. Every print, painting and object displayed has a Dutch and English short and informative description of what we are looking at. Even if you are not familiar with the period and the masters, still you will be able to enjoy the exhibition almost as much as your geeky art historian friend.

Uncovering Everyday Life — From Bosch to Bruegel

As you go into the room, you are greeted with three introductory walls Uncovering Everyday Life, Humour and Reflection and A Time of Change. The introduction is followed by nine short chapters covering the entire collection without overwhelming the visitor. On the one side five chapters: Early Genre Prints, Money Matters, Repel and Attract, A New Monumentality and Not Without Laughter. On the other side four chapters: Inspiration and Imitation, Peasants and Brothels, Allegory Meets Everyday Life and Love Above All.

Uncovering Everyday Life

Around 1500 — for the first time — painters began to take everyday life as a subject — a breakthrough after centuries of almost exclusively painting portraits and religious scenes. Artists like Jheronimus Bosch, Lucas van Leyden and Quentin Massijs pictured pedlars, peasants, beggars, courting couples, money changers and countless other figures in paintings and prints. A new theme, which we now describe as ‘genre’, had been born.
The depiction of everyday life reached a high point around 1560 in the appealing work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Between Bosch and Bruegel came a host of other painters and printmakers who shaped early genre art, among them Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Marinus van Reymerswale, Jan Vermeyen, Pieter Aertsen and Peeter van der Borcht.
Uncovering Everyday Life — From Bosch to Bruegel is the first exhibition about this crucial step in art history, when the focus shifted from the sacred to the secular. The work of this pioneering generation has been of great importance in later developments: from the Dutch painting of the Golden Age to the French Realism of the 19th century and the art of our time.

Humour and Reflection

The genre art of the 16th century is dominated by peasants, mercenaries, beggars and ladies of easy virtue. The ordinary town dweller is almost never portrayed. What we see are feasting, drinking, sex-obsessed characters, work-shy beggars and henpecked villagers. They display precisely the qualities that the civilized man was deemed not to have and so were rewarding objects of derision. At the same time, they hold up a mirror and reflect the viewer’s own vices: the drunkenness among townsfolk was notorious and there were scores of brothels in Antwerp. Yet when townspeople like tax collectors, bankers and lawyers are portrayed, their features are caricatures and they are decked out in old-fashioned costumes. This creates the necessary distance from everyday reality so people can laugh at these money-grabbing types to their heart’s content.
16th century genre art confirms the status quo and is full of stereotypes that evoke humour, abhorrence, recognition — but also admiration. In that regard this art does not differ very much from present day TV programmes where young people behave badly in holiday resorts, and shows that end in brawls or floods of tears.

A Time of Change

The emergence and early development of genre art coincided with a period of great change. Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) lived on a cusp of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, in which humanism and the Reformation presented a new vision of man in his relationship to God and the world. The position of the Catholic Church was no longer self-evident, and nor was that of worldly rulers. This led to the Dutch Revolt and the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War (1568) during Pieter Bruegel’s lifetime.
The role of the artist also came under pressure. Calvin and other reformers saw no place for art in the church. Countless works of art were destroyed in iconoclastic attacks. These developments meant that the Bible and the lives of saints were no longer the only obvious subjects. At the same time the increasingly wealthy urban elite wanted new subjects, such as landscape and still life — and everyday life, too. Most genre works were produced for well-to-do townspeople and it was their ideas that were pictured in the paintings and prints.

Early Genre Prints

Everyday scenes appear in German and Netherlandish prints from the mid-15th century onwards. The creation of copper engraving around 1430 brought greater freedom in printmaking than in painting, which relied on commissions. It meant that artists could choose from a wider range of subjects, although religious themes still predominated. In this period most genre scenes revolved around love: from true love and marital fidelity to licentiousness and paid sex. Elegant figures in refined clothes are typical, be they in gardens of love or in brothels. As well as ‘courtly’ loving couples like these we also find figures from the lower orders of society in early genre prints: from fighting and feasting peasants to beggars and other outcasts.
The makers of these often extremely rare prints have for the most part remained anonymous, among them the Master of Amsterdam Cabinet (c.1470–1490) and Master FVB (c.1475–1500). It is not until the end of the 15th century that we learn engraver’s names.

The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) took printmaking to an unprecedented level of sophistication, and his work became the exemplar for many generations. Dürer was the first to bring together the separate traditions of woodcut and engraving, and his prints in both these media, the product of his apparently inexhaustible imagination, began to attract notice almost as soon as he started making them in the I490S.

In 152I Dürer was fifty, and he had created most of his more than three hundred prints (indeed, throughout his trip to the Netherlands he stayed ahead of his expenses by selling a number of them). His extraordinary production established the possibility of the print as a medium for artistic ideas in an unprecedented way.

Left: Durer. promenade 1498 | Right: Maaster MZ, The Embrace 1503
Left: Israhel van Meekenem, The Organ Player and His Wife 1490–5 | Right: Durer, Peasant Couple Dancing 1514

Love Above All: Lucas van Leyden

We know of twenty or so prints and a handful of paintings about everyday life by Lucas van Leyden. He is considered to be the pioneer of genre art.

Lucas van Leyden, close to twenty years younger than Dürer, was a prodigy who was said to have begun making prints when he was nine years old. He also was famous by 1521, and his engravings, such as the poignant Saint Paul Led Away to Damascus, were admired both for their unusual or unexpectedly treated subjects and for their refined, delicate style. Both artists’ innovations had a striking influence on Renaissance printmaking and on subsequent developments of the medium.

Remarkably, their creative inventions were built on techniques for suggesting form and tone in a purely black-and-white medium that had only recently been invented and honed by Gothic artists such as Master ES and Martin Schongauer, who had guided the print from its roots as a comparatively coarse craft and workshop by-product to a refined and noble art.

Left: Lucas van Leyden, The Dentist 1523 | Right: Lucas van Leyden, The Stone Cutter 1524
Left: Lucas van Leyden, Tavern Scene 1517. The writing says: “See What Happens Next” | Right: Lucas van Leyden, The Standard Bearer 1510
Left: Lucas van Leyden, The Dance of the Magdalene 1519 | Lucas van Leyden, The Pilgrims 1508

Brothels: Brothels were more or less tolerated in most Western European towns in the Middle Ages. Paid sex was depicted candidly in genre art, first in print and later in paintings.

Lucas van Leyden, The Milkmaid 1510
Lucas van Leyden, The Fortune Teller 1508

For more information about 15th century prints in the Low Countries, please read this wonderful free publication by the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.

Money Matters

Quinten Massijs (1466–1530) was the third pioneer of genre art after Bosch and Van Leyden. The leading pioneer in Antwerp in the first quarter of the 16th century. His manner was modelled on the technique of the great Jan van Eyck.

Left: Marinus van Reymerswaele, The Tax Collectors 1530–35 | Right: Marinus van Reymerswaele, The Moneychanger and his Wife 1540
Jan Provoost, Death and the Miser 1515–25

Allegory Meets Everyday Life: Bosch

Bosch was a great pioneer of genre painting. Highly original artist in his choice of subjects and his technique. His loose handling of the brush was very different from his contemporary’s precise brushstrokes. There are only two surviving Bosch paintings in which everyday life plays a major role.

Closed, The Haywain depicts an aged pilgrim walking the road of life, beset by danger.

Jheronimus Bosch, Haywain. Exterior ca. 1516

Open, this triptych addresses the subject of sin. The left panel shows its origin on Earth, from the fallen angels to Eve’s sin. The center shows humanity dragged into sin. The hay wagon is a metaphor of biblical origin that alludes to how ephemeral and fleeting things are in this world. This illustrates a verse from Isaiah (Isaiah 40: 6–7): “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth”. In the central panel, Bosch recreates the Flemish proverb “the world is like a hay cart and everyone takes what he can”. All of the powers-that-be, including the clergy — censured for vices such as avarice and lust — want to catch that hay and climb onto the wagon. They have no qualms about committing all sorts of crimes to do so, including murder.

Jheronimus Bosch, Haywain. Interior ca. 1516
Jheronimus Bosch, Haywain. Details ca. 1516

The Pedlar, 1500: The painting originally covered the exterior of the wings of a triptych. It acquired its present shape when it was sawn into an octagon in the 19th century.

Jheronimus Bosch, The Pedlar 1500
After Jheronimus Bosch, The Conjurer 1520

Repel and Attract

Jan Sanders van Hemessen was the most prominent artist in Antwerp between 1530–1550. The line between genre and history in these paintings was a fine one. His technique is very detailed and he has a preference for life-size figures in close-up. In his genre paintings he makes fun of people who are guided by stupidity or lust.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Keisnijding ca. 1540
Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Details of Keisnijding ca. 1540
Anonym, Satirical Diptych 1520. On the left: ‘Do not open this diptych because you will see my brown cheeks’. ‘If this offends you, you must not be angry because you were warned’. On the right: the fool has the last word.

Peasants and Brothels: From the Brunswick Monogrammist to Jan Vermeyen

While painters like Jan Sanders van Hemessen concentrated on a handful of large figures in the foreground of his paintings, other artists chose compositions with an abundance of tiny figures.

Sebald Beham, Large Peasant Holiday or Village Fair 1535
Herri met de Bles, Landscape with One Mine and Foundry 1525–50
Brunswijkse Monogrammist, Brothel Scene with Quarrelling Prostitutes 1530

A New Monumentality: Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer

In the mid-16th century Pieter Aertsen took a major step in genre painting. In 1550 he became the first artist to depict them life size on panels.

Pieter Aertsen, Partying Farmers 1550
Pieter_Aertsen, The Egg Dance 1552

Inspiration and Imitation: Painters and Printmakers in Bruegel’s Circle

Left: Philips Gale, Head of a Jester 1560 | Right: Pieter Huys, Enraged Woman 1560–70

The image of the peasant: The most popular figure in the genre art of the 16th century was the peasant. At that time 2/3 of the population still lived in the country and the great majority of them worked on the land.

Not Without Laughing: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A Second-Bosch — this is what they were calling Bruegel the Elder during his lifetime. Bosch saw the world as full of fear, whereas Bruegel almost always injected humorous note.

Bruegel was a brilliant landscape artist, echoing his predecessors in his liking for broad panoramic mountain landscapes. Bruegel almost always used the same layout in his print designs and paintings: small figures against a background of breathtaking panoramas. Man is only a tiny figure in a world dominated by nature.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Winter Landscape with Bird Trap 1565
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Crippled Beggars 1568
Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Peasant and the Bird-nester 1568. “He who knows where the nest is, knows it; he who steals it, has it”. Deeds speak louder than words.

I’m sorry for the poor quality of the last image, but I had to share this rare painting:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, A Pig Has to Go in a Sty 1557. “He Who Behaves Like a Pig Belongs in a Sty”. The earliest painted genre scene by Bruegel.

Now that you know everything about the exhibition, how about taking a virtual tour at Boijmans? You can ask questions about the artworks and find our more details about the exhibition (use Chrome to translate from Dutch). Click here.

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