Reflections on two paintings of the Renaissance- Bellini and Bruegel- Brian Keeler
I had an epiphany, of sorts when considering two Renaissance era paintings recently- one from Venice in the 14th century the other from about 85 years later in Flanders. An epiphany seems like an apt word to describe this new understanding, as that term is often used in a religious context to describe the manifestation or appearance of Christ- his baptism on the Jordan River. As the celebration of Epiphany often occurs in January, on the 6th or later, it seems even more relevant- as we are near this time. The more common usage of the term has more in common with a realization or understanding, albeit moving, rather than a mystical experience.
Above- Peter Bruegel the Elder's work. "The Harvest" of 1565. This painting, an oil on panel is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The artist's viewpoint is from above, as if standing on hill or maybe a barn at the same level as the horizon,
My epiphany was to understand how these two masterpieces of western art are supreme examples of opposite expressions of the landscape with portrayals of the figure included. That may seem a rather dry introduction that might only appeal to art history fans who fancy landscapes with figures. Still, the import seemed unique and perhaps even an uncharted study. The two artists are Giovanni Bellini (1430 -1519) and Peter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569.) Whether my insight adds significantly to the discourse on religion or Renaissance art is of less importance than the excitement of learning through viewing the paintings and through the process of studying them.
This past week we visited New York City, where my plan was to visit the Frick Madison and The Metropolitan Museum. The Manet and Degas show was the draw at the MET and I was thrilled with the experience. It was exhilarating to view these two masters of the figurative tradition paired together. Their interest and time spent studying in Italy was the unexpected take away. I was thwarted in the plan to visit the Frick in their new (temporary) digs, as they closed for three days mid-week. I had planned to indulge in the Bellini painting of Saint Francis in Ecstacy. I have seen this large oil of 1480 in the Frick mansion on many occasions, so it was not an unknown, by any means. I have viewed many of Bellini's works elsewhere too, such as in Venice or at the NGA in London. The Frick is currently featuring this work by Bellini shown with a related work- The Three Philosophers by Bellini's student, Giorgioni.
At the MET, after braving the throngs in the Degas/Manet show, we became flaneurs and headed for the newly redone European wing. I had read of the major renovations with new skylights, new gallery configurations and new wall colors along with complete rearrangement of the collection. I loved the colors as they confirmed my own choices for a redoing of my 1860 family home in Wyalusing, PA. They chose a low-chroma blue, which we call Wedgewood Blue, and a lovely red, a type of equally rich but subdued salmon red. And one other color, a kind of soft robin's egg blue but again, low intensity. This last color was chosen for the room with the Death of Socrates painting, which I sketched from on this trip too.
Above- Giovanni Bellini's work, Saint Francis in Ecstacy. Bellini's vantage illustrated here is similar to the Bruegel work, an omniscient or dare we say Godly view from above. The orthogonals of the writing desk and wooden frame of the hut lead up to the eye level off to the left.
Eventually, I settled in front of a really exquiste landscape painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder, titled The Harvest. This brings me to my serendipitous epiphany, which occurred after returning from the city. The realization is that these two paintings of landscapes represent antipodes or opposite uses of the landscape with the figure. Of course, I've read about Bellini's work showing or illustrating the spiritual realisation of Saint Francis as a part of nature. Fitting it seems to us, for the man who epitomized a synthesis of pantheism and a reverence for all of nature with that of Catholic faith. Bruegel's work on the other hand represents an early departure from the landscape being just a backdrop for religious allegories, as was the case with Bellini and all of the Italian painters of the Renaissance. Also, in regards to the opposite qualities represented in these two works, we have a saint in a mystical revelation of the divine in the Bellini. In the Bruegel we have the mundane earthly seasonal work of hard labor in the field along with the needs of the body- a lunch.
Bruegles' work is a celebration of mankind as a part of nature and shown here in the mid-summer heat and atmospherics. The humidity is almost palpable as we feel the exhaustion of the people and can see the soft blurriness of the distant landscape. All of the figures are covered from head to foot, so their apparel does not seem to suggest a hot day. This is a genre scene with no idealization, yet incredilbly beautiful in its depiction of the quotidian. Agrarian scenes like this have since become part of our artistic heritage. We think of some of beautiful canvases like Breton's women in the act of harvesting, or the paintings of 19th century Americans by Winslow Homer and many others.
This painting by Bruegel has much to admire and love. My practice of sketching while in museums is part of the key here, in regards to deeping the understanding of any painting. I have viewed this work on many other visits to the MET, stopping to marvel at the virtuosity. Usually, however, as there is so much to see at the MET, I probably only stopped for a few minutes at most. This time I endeavored to study the large panel painting through drawing. My first observation was the overall composition; a simple division of space with the horizon line about 2/3's up and the vertical division made by the tree on the right. The ensemble of figures is skillfully positioned in a sweet zone at the lower right.
And what wonderfully observed and expressed figures these are. Lounging in the mid-summer heat at noon on an overcast day in the freshly-sythed wheat the figures invite our interest. Each figure is conceived, expressed and articultaed so well. The dynamic pose of the man with the sythe in the lower left is posed and observed as if in mid-action. The organization of the newly cut wheat gathered on the earth, ready to be bundled in conical stacks by the women shows and aguments the perspective.
Above- A painting of the author's, which reinterprets Bruegel's concept of the theme of workers in a harvest activity. Here the depiction is of field workers in Umbria (central Italy) raking and gathering recently cut hay. The title is "Umbrian Field Hands" an oil on linen 36" x 40."
The color- I think of the palette used by Bruegel in this work as a blond-on-blond arrangement. He uses a predominance of warm hues throughout with ochres and Siena hues brought out by the deep low-chroma greens, such as Hooker's Green with black to create a well-defined figure-ground clarity. The white shirts of the peasants seem to be orchestrated too and well positioned. The timbre of the work is also notable, as one comes through the Rembrandt room prior to viewing this painting. The change of palette from deep dark single figures of Rembrandt to the wide expanse of space and lightness of color could not be more pronounced.
The color of the Bellini is remarkable too. The hue of the rocks is of such a unique clarity going towards the slightly turquoise- but controlled and muted. The crystal clarity of the entire work is breathtaking. One thinks of an observation of Fra Angelico's work and how one observor thought he should be cannonized for his use of blue. Here too, we can advocate for the spiritual in this color usage.
The initial appeal of the Bruegel work is the way the uncut wheat forms a kind of geometric form jutting up and leading back into space. And speaking of space, there is a gap in the wheat, a pathway that leads us through an alleyway of sorts, taking us back to a succession of levels of landscape. The pathway was cut earlier in the day as way to transport the wheat on the backs of men to the distant town- where maybe a mill is located. Then maybe the flour or bread will be loaded on ships in the harbor. We viewers eventually come to the hazy sfumato of the bay with a few sailboats and some delicately soft horizontal bands of mountains. There are a succession of buildings too. Hidden behind foliage on the right is a church. So, here we have a reversal in a way of Bellini's work. Instead of a saint foregrounded, we have the spiritual edifice as an ancillary part of the landscape- playing second fiddle to the human efforts in the fields. Speaking of the human, this work could be thought of as an outgrowth of the humansim of Renaissance in Italy. And it was also interesting to learn that Bruegel, like Degas and Manet after him, spent a good amount of time in Italy studying his predecessors.
Above- A painting by the author which also shows a debt to Bruegel. This painting, a 26" x 30" oil on linen is titled, "Parable of the Slippery Slope" is based on Bruegel's work, The Blind Leading the Blind .
We might note that both paintings, the Bellini and the Bruegel are invented scenes, even though they are very convincing, naturalistic and believable. One commentator on Bruegel's work considered it an impossible landscape, as there is nothing of this kind of topography availble in the flat lands of his native Flanders. Bellini's too shows a compliation with a rocky setting like the refuge of Saint Francis at La Verna, which I've visited too. It shows another landscape in the distance resembling perhaps the builidings of the Saint's home in Umbria at Assisi.
So these wonderful and unplanned appreciations at musuems are part of the appeals of availing ourselves of these incredbile works. The shear abundance of viruosity that is there for our delectation is truly astounding, if not overwhelming. I have taken these inspirations and applied them to my own projects. For example, another work by Bruegel, the Blind leading the Blind or The Parable of the Blind in the Naples Musuem was reinterpreted in a canvas of political commentary. Then a Velazquez work and Jacques Louis David's painting of Socrates also served as works to apply in new contexts. The Manet work, of Luncheon in the Grass is one famous example of this process- as he in turn was reapplying poses from a Raphael.
In closing, I will add this work of Bruegel was part of my youth. My father had a small reproduction of this work hanging in his studio next to to KLH stereo. So I would look at it whenever I was changing LP's.
Above- The author's sketch of the Bruegel made in the Metropolitan Museum.
View a video of this sketch being done in the Metropolitian Museum of Art- https://youtu.be/ohKCiQuRdUg?si=6BWUNxUNxuaGJ673
Above- "Heaving Hay in PA" this 33" x 33" oil on linen by the author takes this theme of Bruegel, the harvest and does a contemporary interpretation. The painting is available through the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY.