Pieter Brueghel the Younger's work revolved around the world of Flemish peasants and village scenes created by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (b. 1525), and evoked in any number of literary and visual forms ever since. Pieter the Younger spent his life producing copies and versions of his father's paintings, in great demand throughout Europe almost immediately upon the artist's death in 1569, and the subject of Flemish proverbs was among his most famous. This series of four roundels, together since the late nineteenth century, relates to three of Pieter the Elder's works on the theme: his series of roundels in Antwerp (Mayer van den Bergh), his Flemish proverbs of 1559 in Berlin (Staatliche Museum), and his Nest robber of 1568 in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum). While some of the proverbs are inaccessible to the twenty-first century viewer, others are still in use in some form and, while many of them are based on classical sources, they have largely been accepted and beloved as examples of Flemish 'folk' wisdom.
Two of the four scenes, the woman in a winter landscape and the man by the well, are based on the Antwerp roundels, one of which is signed and dated 1558. They illustrate twelve proverbs, each represented by a single figure on a red ground. They were joined in the seventeenth century to make the large panel that one sees today and at that time inscriptions were added to explain each scene. Our identification of the proverbs is based on these inscriptions.
In the case of the woman in a winter landscape, the inscription reads: 'IN D'EEN HANT DRAGHE VIER, IN DANDER WAETER MET CLAPPAERS EN CLAPPEYEN HOVD ICK DEN SNAETER' (Fire in one hand, water in the other, I spend time with the gossips and the good women) or 'the wicked sow discord'. Pieter the Younger has replaced the red ground of his father's painting with a village setting and the woman makes her way through it holding a burning coal in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. The man filling the well is also based on one of the Antwerp roundels and its accompanying inscription reads: 'WAT BAET HET SIEN EN DERELYCK LONCKEN ICK STOP DEN PVT ALS TCALF IS VERDRONCKEN' (What benefit is there in making a good impression, I fill the well after the calf has drowned). 'Filling the well after the calf has drowned' is still in use today and refers to futile activity.
The third proverb is based on a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Dresden and depicts a man herding geese. It illustrates the now unfamiliar saying 'who knows why geese go barefoot,' an expression of our 'everything has a reason.' The same figure appears with his herd of geese sitting on the beach in the background right of the large Flemish proverbs in Berlin. The nest robber, the subject of the fourth tondo, seems to have been among Pieter the Elder's most popular images as various copies of the Vienna painting were produced in different formats by Pieter the Younger and his studio. The subject has long been associated with the following saying: 'Dijede nest west, dije weeten Dijen rooft, dije heeten' (He who knows where the nest is has the knowledge He who steals it has the nest). The young man walking towards the viewer points out the nest while the boy in the tree is in the process of taking it. The larger theme of the Flemish proverbs is the articulation of the world as it should not be. It is a compendium of the idiocy that accompanies lack of reason, futile activity, and ill-conceived endeavors.
There are more than sixty known roundels of this type produced by Pieter the Younger and his studio, seventeen of which are signed and six of which are dated. They depict thirty different proverbs and exhibit a range of workshop assistance. The vigorous underdrawing evident in each of these works, together with the fluent way in which the paint is applied, suggests that they are by the hand of Pieter the Younger himself. Certain hallmarks of the studio works, such as a tendency to outline facial features with black or dark brown lines, are not evident. Pieter the Younger made an effort to imitate his father's loose brushwork and fluid painting style and his best works are subtle and beautiful interpretations of the original compositions.
Recent research into Pieter the Younger's oeuvre has raised many questions and generated a number of hypotheses regarding his studio production. The issue of whether he saw, or even worked from, his father's original paintings is foremost among these questions as his copies were remarkably faithful, even with respect to his palette and use of local color. Access to his father's original works was not always possible and it seems likely that he worked from detailed drawings made by his father in preparation for his own paintings. These drawings would have been highly finished compositional studies with annotations indicating the type of brushstroke and colors to be used. Pieter the Younger would then have produced drawings after his father's original drawing from which his pupils could work. His copies often feature certain details evident only in the underdrawing of Pieter the Elder's original paintings.
It was long thought that The Flemish Proverbs illustrated actual sayings from Flemish folk culture and Bruegel's treatment of the subject, painted as it is in his peasant genre idiom, supports that association. However, a recent study has linked the theme to the contemporary study of classical literature (Margaret Sullivan, 'Bruegel's Proverbs: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance', in The Art Bulletin 1991, vol. LXXIII, no. 3). Collections of proverbs such as Erasmus' Adages (1533) and Marco Girolamo Vida's De arte poetica (1534) were not simply manuals of acceptable behavior, but ancient proverbs formulated in the vernacular in order to make the wisdom of the ancients accessible to a wide audience. For Erasmus, proverbs contained 'almost all the philosophy of the Ancients' and expressed the basic principles upon which one should base one's life. While proverbs themselves were intended for those not classically educated, Pieter the Elder's painting of them would have been owned by royalty or by one of a number of wealthy and erudite contemporary collectors. Pieter the Younger's copies reached a wider market. Still, The Flemish Proverbs, with its village setting and bawdy humour, would never have been seen by those who are meant to utter such home grown truths - it is philosophy in the vernacular, highbrow references masquerading as folk culture.