Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a powerful force in Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, a direct response to the more popular Italian and lower country Renaissance we’re familiar with, in the 16th century. His paintings of elaborate scenes tell a complicated tale with each character baring its own significance. His controlled and calculated compositions paired with his stylized characters made him one of the most recognizable and cherished Dutch Painters.
Bruegel’s oldest son was also a painter, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, and he was not nearly as successful. Pieter Bruegel the younger had a collection of original paintings that didn’t ganer him a lot of fame, they were largely forgotten during the 18th and 19th century but were rediscovered in the 20th century. However, Bruegel the Younger may have been one of the first figures to capitalize off their parent’s celebrity status as he was one of the foremost copyists of his father’s work. Using a technique called pouncing, a transfer method similar to tracing, he would recreate his father’s compositions. He had access to an incredibly organized workshop, many original paintings, and when those weren’t present he would use prints or preliminary sketches to recreate his father’s work. He was successful at it but often missed key details of the work and this, I believe, was the separating factor between the true master that is Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the copyist Pieter Bruegel the Younger.
To illustrate my example I will begin with a less popular etching by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Fool Drinking on an Egg c. 1559. This piece is on display at the British Museum in London and I think it’s just a beautiful piece. Its delicacy alone speaks to control of the medium, soft lines accumulate to create tone and give depth without having direct shading. The image itself shows a jester, or fool, sitting atop a giant egg that is slightly cracked revealing his marionette inside. Before anything, this is kind of a ridiculous and goofy image which is why I think I like it so much, we often think of Renaissance painters as so serious, depicting God’s tales but here we have a drunk guy on an egg. But more than just its goofy nature, I love the subtlety and ambiguity of the storytelling elements in the image. The fact that he’s a jester has to be inferred based on his elbow bells and donkey ears on his hood, this makes sense of the marionette inside wearing a matching hoodie. But what does the egg mean? No one knows, I read a passage in a book, titled Carnivalesque by Timothy Hyman and Roger Malbert (a long standing piece in my collection that I highly recommend), that suggest maybe the jester emerged from the egg that’s just as hollow as himself, or that he’s drinking to fully crack and release the character inside himself, symbolized by the egg. But that’s the thing, we can’t truly be sure, there’s a lot of assigned meaning that could be given to the imagery here but nothing is certain. I think one of the marks of a great artist is the ability to give ambiguous storytelling elements that force the viewer to conclude on what the image means for themselves, it’s not totally senseless but its meaning isn’t totally black and white either.
This brings us to the copy, Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Drunkard on an Egg. Compositionally we see a lot of the same things, a cloaked figure drinking atop an egg, marionette inside but there are a lot of new elements as well. First, this is a finished painting, not just an etching, so color has been added. More than color, a whole landscape has been added to the background. But, unlike his father’s etching, this painting lacks a lot of that ambiguity in storytelling, it almost completely lacks a story. Starting with the jester, a lot of the subtlety of character has been lost, his elbow bells are gone so it can’t really be concluded that he’s a jester and his cloak is painted in a deep red so the donkey ears, which did remain, don’t even necessarily read as donkey ears. The best I could put together is that this is, instead, a devil like figure symbolizing the demons of alcoholism. However, there’s a lot more to this painting that doesn’t make any sense. If we can’t conclude that this is a jester then why is there a marionette? What possible meaning could the egg hold? Is there any significance to the home in the forest set in the background?
Bruegel the Younger doesn’t give us the tools to complete the story that his father’s etching allowed us to put together. In fact the only way, you could make any sense of Bruegel the Younger’s painting is if you studied his father’s etching beforehand. Perhaps that was his intention, to sell the work as a finished painting his father did based off of the preliminary etching but I don’t think he succeeded in that. I think what Bruegel the Younger did succeed in was illustrating a perfect example of how a copyist can never truly match the original’s power or subtlety. Even when the work he was copying was by his own father, to whom he had all the access in the world, Pieter Bruegel the Younger couldn’t give us a copy that bore the strength and significance of his father’s work.