Liam Copping, Account Manager, Art lover and hobby artist, shares his thoughts about Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Hunters in the snow series.
After what has seemingly been an endless summer and warm autumn, we approach winter, with longer nights and more forced free time to reflect on the world around us.
During this time of year one of the artists I think of and admire is Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and more specifically one of his more well-known works, 'Hunters in the Snow' (c.1565).
It is one of those paintings that has appeared to have permeated into western societies visual consciousness, not to the same scale as say the Mona Lisa, but certainly on a fairly large scale thanks to seasonal greeting cards and the like. If you have never seen the painting before, chances are if you have a look now there is a good chance your initial reaction may be 'oh that painting'.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born in the Netherlands in around 1526 and was arguably one of the most significant Dutch Renaissance artists of his age, although compared to his contemporaries not a lot is actually known about him in great detail, and only about 40 of his paintings generally accepted to be his, survive to this day, although he was a prolific designer of prints which brought his works to the masses and widen his popularity.
In particular in around 1557 a sequence of seven engravings illustrating the 'seven deadly sins' was published, moral lessons being the obvious and popular choice for society and the church at the time, followed later from 1558 with 'The Seven Virtues'. He utilised daily life, keenly observed and likely enjoyed from his own experiences, when executing these engravings with detailed depictions of townsfolk from all walks of life.
Whilst artists in Rome were pursuing the more idealised, romanticised, figure and image in their work, with representations of religious and philosophical stories being utilised by the catholic church and commissioned accordingly by those wealthy patrons in and around those circles, Bruegel was pursuing a less romantic view.
This is not to say his work is 'true to life' but rather his capability to make a lifelike sketch of individuals that is an exaggerated reflection of their personality, to the point where even a quick glance of one of his paintings and you could easily imagine how the figure in the painting were to behave if you were ever to meet them in real life.
This also extends to the landscapes and settings to which these characters/people reside, the flower and fauna being accurately rendered, towns and villages showing everyday life, the attention to detail.
Poetic license is still utilised however in order to draw you in and grab your attention. 'Hunters in the Snow' one of a series of six paintings done to represent the seasons (the sixth is lost), each painting covering two months, Hunters likely being either November and December or December and January. The scene showing a snow-covered valley with mountains in the distance, clearly a landscape not real in his native 'flat' Belgium, the Alpine mountain range probably witnessed on a previous visit to Rome, a route that would have traversed the Alps.
The semi-natural imagined landscape still contains many realistic elements depicting the harshness of winter, the most obvious being the hunters themselves returning from a virtually fruitless hunt with a single fox, heads facing down their dogs also tired, trudging through the snow with the very real danger of starvation with each failed expedition.
In the distance a frozen river and lake covered with villagers, now with more free time as the snow covered fields do not need tending, ice-skating to pass the time, children and families playing hockey and pulling sledges. The distant scene may illicit an initial idyllic response, but as we can see from the defeated hunters, life was harsh and hung in a delicate balance. The average lifespan during this time was around 40, Bruegel himself dying at around the age of 43 from a stomach ulcer.
The focus in the painting on everyday folk activities, seemingly mundane but with an intimate portrayal of human life shows how important the everyday was to Bruegel in depicting the melancholic to joyous juxtapositions of life.
Hunters in the Snow was used extensively in the 1972 film 'Solaris' as an anchor for part of the main characters longing for home. More recently it was used in the 2011 film 'Melancholia', not an easy watch, but arguably contains one of the best representations of depression committed to film, a disease that causes very real debilitating physical conditions. A clear deliberate decision was made in using Hunters in these films due to the possible themes contained within the painting.
The painting stays with you- the best paintings do- as they are well structured with well executed imagery. Hunters draws you in starting with the Hunters, then leading your eye down to the villagers on the ice and onwards to the imposing mountains and the perhaps slightly ominous flying crow.
It is a painting that is for me a metaphor for life during troubled times, Bruegel himself having lived at a time of extensive change in Western Europe, with Martin Luther's 95 Thesis starting the Protestant Reformation, leading to ensuing conflict against the Catholic Church and the Spanish inquisition in the Dutch provinces.
The image of the tired looking Hunters heading home dejected despite their best efforts is something I think many people can empathise with currently. Many things however are beyond our control, that is my take away from it. Perhaps though, looking ahead and enjoying the simple pleasures of taking a walk, or exercise, can change perspectives and perceptions – even if only temporarily.