So you like a bit of Pieter Bruegel the Elder? Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a couple of his so-rare paintings? Or perhaps half a dozen? Or ten? Or more? Just pop into the outstanding Bruegel collection at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum…
- Museum owns 12 Bruegel originals (the most significant collection in the world)
- Includes The Tower of Babel
- Enjoy the paintings all year round in the picture galleries
- See also: Kunsthistorisches Museum tickets & visitor info | Best art in Vienna
More Bruegels than anywhere
Pieter Bruegel the Elder died in 1569, and experts regard him as a pioneer of genre painting and a superstar of the Renaissance. So one of the more exciting moments in my journalistic life was experiencing the fabulous Bruegel exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM). To say it was popular would be an understatement.
Ironically, many of the paintings that had visitors desperately crowding around for a small glimpse of Bruegel’s genius are viewable anytime at the museum. That’s because the KHM just happens to have the world’s biggest and most important collection of his paintings. These include:
- Children’s Games (1560)
- The Tower of Babel (1563 and possibly Bruegel’s most famous work)
- The Procession to Calvary (1564)
- The Conversion of Paul (1567)
- The Return of the Herd (1565)
- The Hunters in the Snow (1565)
- The Gloomy Day (1565)
- The Peasant and the Nest Robber (1568)
- The Peasant Wedding (1568)
- The Peasant Dance (1568)
- The Suicide of Saul (1562)
- The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559)
I saw the first ten on a recent visit (and might simply have missed the other two) to the museum’s picture galleries. Enjoy my impressions with a grain of salt, as I own to no artistic understanding.
First of all, if you stand back and take in the whole wall, it feels like you fell into a book of Bruegel masterpieces.
Then take a closer look at the paintings and the detail soon absorbs you; the vaguely annoying squeak of visitor feet on wooden floors fades to nothing, and Bruegel convinces you that this is not a painting from his imagination, but a documentation or a snapshot of a real scene.
This feeling of capturing a moment in time seemed strongest in The Procession to Calvary, which pictures the procession around Christ as he carries the cross. Guards deal with a brawling couple, momentarily distracting the onlookers from Christ’s fate.
A similar feeling arose from The Conversion of Paul, in the rips in a soldier’s tunic and the interaction between people as if unaware they’re being photographed.
In other paintings, it’s all about the minutiae.
Like the bowed heads of tired men returning home in The Hunters in the Snow.
Or the bare treetops in The Gloomy Day, the evocation of season through colour in The Return of the Herd, and the broken jug handle in The Peasant Dance.
Or the myriad of scenes in Children’s Games, with many games waking memories of my own childhood some 450 years after Bruegel put down his brush.
And then, of course, there are the questions raised by The Peasant Wedding, acquired as part of the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614 – 1662), younger brother of Ferdinand III (a Holy Roman Emperor).
Who is the well-dressed man seated at the end of the wedding table? What food is in the bowls on the serving tray? And where on earth did that leg come from?
The bottom right of the picture appears to show an extra leg under that serving tray. Either the man carrying the tray has three legs (unlikely) or the man handing out the plates is a contortionist (possible).
Is it a hidden person? A leftover from an earlier version of the painting? A space filler? A deliberate attempt to challenge the observer to find the right owner of the foot and draw his or her eyes up the painting? Or just Bruegel’s little joke?
Nobody seems to know, but – intriguingly – a copy of the painting by his son (Pieter Brueghel the Younger1) omits this third leg.
How to get to the Bruegels
Follow the instructions for finding the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Then head for the picture galleries (“Gemäldegalerie”). You want Gallery 10 (Saal X), which is also known, unsurprisingly, as the “Bruegel Saal”.
Address: Burgring 7, 1010 Vienna
1The Bruegel family seemed to change the spelling of their name a lot.