Bruegel: The Complete Graphic Works

Image of Bruegel: The Complete Graphic Works
Release Date: 
January 21, 2020
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

“With detailed notations and interesting reflections on themes, symbolisms and iconography, this book is a pleasure from start to finish.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526–1569) has crossed a big threshold marking 450 years since his death, an anniversary that has had art historians buzzing busily to crank out as much research material as possible. This project focuses on Bruegel’s prints and is considered a complete catalog raisonné of his work in this medium.

Cutting straight to the chase, this book does not disappoint. Bruegel was a talented, wise, clever artist with savvy and profitable connections. The essays reflect his business sense very well, and the images are beautiful and extensive. With detailed notations and interesting reflections on themes, symbolisms and iconography, this book is a pleasure from start to finish. It is attention grabbing and thereafter, captivating; an excellent example of high-quality art history scholarship in an entertaining and readable book.

There are five essays in the first section each written by a different contributor. The first pulls together a story of Bruegel’s working relationships in Antwerp in the 1550s when a young Bruegel first registered in the city as a painter. He had early success and was one of the few in this era to receive recognition and credit for his designs.

The second essay delves into a possible hypothesis for Bruegel’s trip to Italy—a clandestine mission for geographical reconnaissance perhaps? A juicy and thrilling possibility fun to imagine, yet so well covered up it’s still difficult to prove.

Bruegel’s print techniques are explored in the third essay, and the reader learns about the different states of the intaglio plates. Prints were where the money was, and different folks had their hands in different parts of the print process. Several series were commissioned, and Bruegel was one of the top selling “brands” of his generation. His plates were passed down to successive generations of publishers even after his death.

One print in particular is quite unique because it came from a woodblock while the others were from copper plates. The next essay takes a look at the research that has been conducted on this particular woodblock by a joint collaboration between the Royal Library of London and Leuven University. The work combines, “historical and technical research, digital imaging, image processing, conservation and restoration techniques, and data management,” to discover the different phases of printmaking that were employed in 1566.

Finally the last essay discusses the waxing and waning of Bruegel’s popularity over the centuries culminating in the vast collections (of over one million objects—not exclusively Bruegel's of course!) housed in the Royal Library of Belgium’s Print Room (known today as KBR).

Following the essays is a hefty catalogue section divided into themes: sea and landscapes; Bruegel as the second Bosch; sins and virtues; narrator and moralist; city and country life; biblical scenes; and posthumous success. In this manner we see the depth of Bruegel’s skill set and the dexterity with which he applied it. These images are spectacularly stunning, and it is easy to get lost in the tight controlled mastery of Bruegel’s touch.

Extensive technical information is also offered for every print: catalog number, engraver name, artist name, date, technique, dimensions, inventory numbers, locations, signatures, privileges, publisher and address, translation of inscriptions, notes and descriptions, even ownership of the plates. The team’s dedication to including these specifications is impressive and ranks this project a solid, respectable resource for academics and collectors.

With plenty of Bruegel options available, Bruegel: The Complete Graphic Works is still a must have for library collections. With most books focusing on his paintings, this one fills a gap in his print oeuvre and is a welcome addition.