Pieter Brueghel – The Return Of The Hunters

Hundreds of tiny people are scattered over a vast frozen landscape. We look from a hilltop, over miles of snow, to a jagged mountain range. We feel a piercing cold in the blue-green ice below, and in the heavy, dull green sky. It is heightened by contrast with a tongue of yellow fire at the left, and with other notes of warm red-brown in the house walls there. The black skeletons of trees and bushes, the black silhouettes of hunting dogs, crows and distant skaters, and of distant house-walls under snowy roofs, bring out the dead surrounding whiteness of winter in a mountain village.

All these factors cooperate to produce a vivid sense of the “spirit of place “— the concrete, individual reality of this particular scene and occasion. At the same time, they are typical of wintry weather everywhere; they distill the essential spirit of that season; of how things look, and how people and animals feel in the dead of winter. Thus they appeal to a host of deep and vivid associations in the mind of any dweller in a northern climate. This effect had been approached by a few old Flemish painters, notably Pol de Limbourg, but never with this breadth and force, or with this mature command of pictorial means. There is a debt to Venice, perhaps, in the knowledge of how to blend light and color into realistic atmosphere; and Carpaccio had shown a few years earlier how to organize vast spaces, and people them with many little figures. But the materials used, and the total result, are unlike anything imagined in the south. Brueghel’s nearest source is Bosch; but there is nothing realistic in that painter’s nightmare landscapes filled with imps and monsters.

Surely the birth of modern landscape is here, and not in Claude or Poussin, nearly three quarters of a century later. There is more feeling for nature, as divorced from Greek gods and classical architecture, than in either of these Italianate Frenchmen. Moreover, Brueghel bows to no other landscape painter, from the Sung Chinese to the post-impressionists, in his ability to organize a scene in terms of rhythmic design, and yet maintain that quality of irregular, casual freedom that is vital if the scene is to look genuinely natural.

His design is concealed, but firm and definite. Beside the definite color-themes mentioned—blue-green, yellow and reddish brown — the whole landscape is built out of definite, similar sections fitted together. Strong light-and-dark contrasts bring out a scheme of intersecting diagonals. One of them comes down the nearby slope, from the roof to the lower right-hand corner. It is answered, unobtrusively, by another from the lower left, along the bottoms of the trees and the man’s feet, and the edges of the two distant ponds. This criss-cross is echoed by all the distant roads and roofs, the spires and mountain peaks. Even the perching crows, the branches and the bending skaters carry it crisply back and forth. The lacework of trees, dogs, men and spears against the snow is as striking as a Japanese print. But it is not overdone. The background softens to an opal mist as it nears the horizon, with a realistic sense of aerial perspective.