Angels becoming demons, fish with a belly full of smaller fish, spiders playing the instruments and all the different kind of monsters painted in a most creative way… All of them could be found on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings and drawings. 2019 marks 450 years since the artist’s death and many museums and cultural institutions are marking the year of Bruegel in Belgium by organising some interesting exhibitions and event.
The year of Bruegel in Belgium
At the beginning of November, I’ve spent two days in Brussels and Antwerp by learning more about this fascinating artist. I thought I knew quite a lot about him before my trip, but I was proved entirely wrong. Although today famous for his detailed paintings with peasants and monsters as the main protagonists, I knew next to nothing about his trip to Italy, landscape drawings and maritime scenes. So, let’s start with the basics first. Who was Bruegel really?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
We don’t know when and where exactly Bruegel was born, but it was somewhere around Breda in today’s the Netherlands, and probably between 1525 and 1530. After his training as an artist, in a meaner of that time, he took a trip to Italy to learn by making drawings of the old Roman ruins. In 1555 he was back to Antwerp, which was one of Europe’s trade centres, and more importantly the publishing centre of northern Europe. He started to earn his living by designing prints for the leading publisher of that time – Hieronymus Cock. Later on, he began to paint, and become one of the pioneers of the genre painting, by focusing mostly on peasants, landscapes and biblical scenes. Often, he would include all of them in one picture.
Although Antwerp was the economic centre of the time, Brussels was where the government was. So, to receive more high commissions, in 1563 he moved there. This is the year when he got married as well, and later on, became a father to two sons and a daughter. Although we know nothing about a girl, his sons became famous painters, too – Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to give them any training because he died early, in 1569, when he was around 40 years old.
Bruegel’s work in Belgium
Around 40 of his paintings have survived. Many of them are in Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. However, a lovely collection of them is still at the places where they were created – in Brussels and Antwerp. Because of the celebration of the year of Bruegel in Belgium, now is a great time to see them and learn more about this fascinating man.
Year of Bruegel in Brussels
*Address: Zuidlaan 150, 1060 Sint-Gillis / Online tickets: on a link here / Exhibition on display until: October 18th 2020
Visit to these old medieval city gate was probably the best way to start my trip and immerse into the time of Bruegel. While he was living in Brussels, he lived rather close to them. So, whenever he would be getting out of the city, he would pass through these doors. However, there is a great ‘Back to Bruegel’ exhibition organised in it in a moment. Not only it gives an excellent overview of a political situation in Flanders during the 16th century. Which is with its new Spanish rulers, high taxes they’ve introduced and religious wars, definitely essential to understand some of the meaning of Bruegel’s paintings. But, it also uses virtual reality to allow visitors to step into some of Bruegel’s famous paintings. I was so amazed to be being able to sit at the table with Bruegel, have some beer with him and walk around the square from one of his paintings (you can get a glimpse of it in a video here). But, that wasn’t the only place where with the help of virtual reality, I could get a better idea of how life in Bruegel’s time looked like. There is a magnificent panoramic view of Brussels from the top of the Hallepoort. However, with the help of virtual reality glasses, I could see Brussels in the 16th century in front of me, too.
*TIP: To get yourself entirely into that Bruegel mood have lunch at the Plein Publiek. They have a menu inspired by some of his paintings with some delicious food to try. I had mussels in a souse made of beer (well, when in Brussels)…
Royal Library of Belgium
*Address: Kunstberg 28, 1000 Brussels / Online tickets: on a link here / Exhibition on display until: February 16th 2020
Libraries may not be the first place to visit when exploring the new town, but, trust me, this one is a true gem. Royal Library in Belgium is participating in a celebration of the year of Bruegel in Belgium by hosting an exhibition dedicated to his print designs. ‘The World of Bruegel in Black and White’ was one of the most surprising parts of my trip to Brussels. And, also one of my favourites.
In its first part, the exhibition is focusing on Hieronymus Cock and his publishing business and is explaining the process of printmaking. However, the second part is where some of the most surprising art pieces created by Bruegel are – his print designs. His landscape drawings and maritime scenes are showing all the changes he did in those genres. But, his imagination and the recognisable world of monsters and weird animals could be found on numerous of his prints, as well.
*TIP: Even if you’re not planning on visiting the exhibition dedicated to Bruegel, I’ll definitely encourage you to visit this library to see some of its interiors. I was so impressed by its historical rooms, beautiful wallpapers in them, and classical decor.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
*Address: Regentschapsstraat 3, 1000 Brussels / Online tickets: on a link here / Exhibition on display until: Permanent display
Although I visited this museum quite recently, I was excited to see some of those famous Bruegel’s paintings, it is home to, again. His winter scenes are there, and it’s interesting how you can almost feel the cold by looking at them. However, probably one of my favourite of his paintings, ‘The Fall of Rebel Angels’ is the masterpiece they have. I could stand in front of it and explore all the details on it for hours.
In a museum, there are touch screens where they, in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, created a project and are playing with virtual reality to showcase all the details from Bruegel’s work. And even let visitors, immerse in the paintings and found themselves surrounded by Bruegel’s characters. You can see how that looks like on a link here.
*Address: Kunstberg 5, 1000 Brussels / Online tickets: on a link here / Exhibition on display until: January 10th 2020
After a short break and playing with an idea of ordering a Belgian coffee at a lobby of my hotel (it’s a coffee with gin, in case you were wondering), it was time for the last stop on my journey of discovering Bruegel in Brussels. I went back to the Plein Publiek to see the ‘Beyond Bruegel‘ digital exhibition. It seems like these kinds of shows are becoming popular lately, and it’s not without reason. By getting closer to the masterpieces, and seeing them from a whole new perspective, often by being pulled into the painting, is a great experience. I’ve become quite a big fan of those digital exhibitions after seeing the one dedicated to Van Gogh in Paris earlier this year.
*TIP: I did a few videos at the exhibition, so be sure to check them out in my Instagram stories highlights on a link here.
*Address: Kapellemarkt 5, 1000 Brussels / Make a reservation on a link here!
Still under the impression of all of those monsters, spiders and fish from Bruegel’s paintings actually moving, we continued to a lovely traditional Brussels’ restaurant – Les Brigittines. This time I didn’t have mussels, but the restaurant prepared a special menu dedicated to Pieter Bruegel. It was quite surprising to see how they used a rustic food and turned it into something that could be almost considered as fine dining. And although the impressions at a table were divided, I quite enjoyed my meal. Especially a dessert containing candid eggplant.
The restaurant is located just across the street of another sight linked to Bruegel – the Chapel Church. It is a place where he got married to his wife Mayken Coecke in 1563 when he moved to Brussels. But also a place where he was buried in 1569. There is a lovely statue of him next to it, showing him working on one of his paintings.
Year of Bruegel in Antwerp
After a good night sleep and an excellent breakfast in a hotel, it was time to catch a train and get to Antwerp. I stayed at the Hilton Brussels Grand Place Hotel, which is conveniently located just across the Brussels Central train station.
*TIP: My favourite way of travelling to Belgium from the Netherlands is by train. Numerous trains are departing daily between the two countries, and a great thing, if you’re travelling with NS, is that often you don’t need to book a specific time in a day of your trip. Instead, you can catch a train at any convenient time for you. They often run promotions on their trains to Belgium, so be sure to check out NS International website regularly.
Museum Mayer van Den Bergh
*Address: Lange Gasthuisstraat 19, 2000 Antwerpen / Online tickets: on a link here / Exhibition on display until: December 31 2020
Antwerp is home to so many amazing museums, but the two I visited during my Bruegel trip are real secret gems. Museum Mayer van Den Bergh is home to a few of Bruegel’s and his son’s paintings. However, when I entered it, I was first overwhelmed by a cosy appearance the museum has. It contains a collection of artworks gained by the 19th-century art collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh. Although created as a museum, with its leather wall coverings, classic furniture and beautiful decoration, it feels more like someone’s home.
The museum is hosting an exhibition ‘Madonna meets Mad Meg’ during which you can see recently restored Bruegel’s painting ‘Mad Meg.’
*TIP: The museum is also organising a two hours long city walk ‘In Bruegel’s Footsteps’. Unfortunately, I didn’t had a chance to join it, but I believe it’s a great way to learn more about the life of this fascinating painter. Look here for more info.
After a delicious lunch at a lovely Local Store Restaurant (all the food they are serving is locally produced), we continued to the next museum which is participating in a celebration of the Year of Bruegel in Belgium.
Snijders & Rockoxhuis
*Address: Keizerstraat 12, 2000 Antwerpen / Exhibition on display until: January 26th 2020
The museum is located in the homes of two quite important men from the 17th century Antwerp. Nicolaas Rockox and Frans Snijders were a politician and a painter living door-to-door for twenty years in Antwerp. Their homes were carefully restored and turned out in a museum nowadays.
An exhibition dedicated to the drawings of Jan Brueghel the Elder, Pieter’s son, is currently on display there. Like his father, he travelled to Italy, as well. And many of his drawings from that journey could be seen at the exhibition. Drawings are also depicting river and village views, roads and travellers, coastal scenes, sea and forest. It’s the first exhibition ever focusing only to his drawings and is absolutely worth visiting.
*TIP: The museum is also paying tribute to Mayken Verhulst. She was a mother of Pieter the Elder’s wife Mayken, and grandmother of his sons Pieter and Jan. However, she was also one of the best artists of her time, a talented watercolourist and a real teacher to her grandsons. Alexandra Cool created the statue of her that could be seen in a museum. She has mixed flower seeds with clay, so when the unbaked clay’s slowly eroding, the flowers are left behind.
Belgium is proud of its artistic heritage and especially of its Flemish masters. Pieter Bruegel the Elder is absolutely one of the most interesting of them. So, if you happen to be in a neighbourhood, be sure to check some of these events and exhibitions organised in honour of the year of Bruegel in Belgium
*I have visited Brussels and Antwerp during the Bruegel press trip organised by Visit Flanders. Many thanks to all the lovely guides, museums and everyone from the Visit Flanders for organising this trip and helping me learn about that wonderful painter.
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