Six years before Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted his innovative Harvesters (1565), he compiled a visual encyclopaedia of Netherlandish Proverbs which is another brilliant example of this form of complex visual narrative. This time, he catalogues well over a hundred popular proverbs of the day. They are set in what appears to be a bustling coastal village. But the closer you look at it, the more contrived and extraordinary are its figures.
Armed with a compendium of proverbs of the day, the painting finally makes sense. I won’t iterate my way through every one of the 112 different proverbs which have been identified, but show four detailed views which encourage you to work out the individual sayings as well as you can. The painting’s page on Wikipedia shows a detail view for each of the proverbs so far identified.
The upper part of the house shows how densely Bruegel has concentrated the proverbs. The broom poking out from the window is for sticking out the broom, which means having fun while the master’s away; the couple under it are marrying under the broomstick, or living together out of wedlock, and the odd circular objects on the roof represent having the roof tiled with tarts, meaning to be very wealthy.
Below the house, the figures are packed densely and proverbs come thick and fast. The central couple of the painting are the man dressed in a pale blue cloak, with wife in red behind him, referring to the phrase putting the blue cloak on her husband, or deceiving him.
To take just one small area in full detail, I show the following excerpt.
These figures represent:
- to be armed to the teeth,
- to be an iron-biter (boastful and indiscreet),
- to bell the cat (being indiscreet about secret plans),
- one winds off the distaff what the other spins (spreading gossip),
- watch out that a black dog does not come in between (two women together do not need a barking dog to add to the trouble),
- one shears sheep, the other shears pigs (one has all the advantages, the other none),
- shear them but do not skin them (don’t press your advantage too far),
- to be as tame as a lamb (very obedient).
Figures in the lower right are just as densely packed and chaotic. The peasant at the upper right here does duty for two proverbs, as they fall through the basket (have their deception uncovered) and are suspended between heaven and earth (in an awkward situation).
The fire dominating the upper section of the painting signifies not caring whose house is on fire, so long as you can warm yourself by its flames, meaning to take every opportunity regardless of the impact on others. The figure at the top right, crouching by the gallows tree, portrays the phrase to crap on the gallows, so being undeterred by any penalty.
The following year, Bruegel painted another visual encyclopaedia, this time cataloguing childhood games of the day.
Children’s Games from 1560 appears less contrived, and until you study the figures carefully, you might not notice its systematic compilation of the games played by children. Many remain popular even today.
Direct descendants are to be found in current illustrated children’s books, and other artists were to use similar narrative techniques over the following four centuries. For one artist to have painted The Harvesters, Netherlandish Proverbs and Children’s Games in such rapid succession is a unique accomplishment.