IT would be impossible to overstate the importance of the Bruegel family in the world of art, or to be sufficiently grateful for what four of these artists did in the way of contributing to our sensibility to the beauty and subtlety of what we see. The first Bruegel of international renown was Pieter the Elder (1525/30- 1569). His third son was Jan Bruegel, called the Elder (1568-1625/6), followed by those two members of the next generation, Jan the Younger and Pieter the Younger. The picture shown on this page is by Jan the Elder, a man of many parts, a genius.
This period of European painting is sometimes called the Age of Landscape, as, strangely enough, the Continent came late to its fascination with views of nature, of mountains and panoramas. This was astoundingly late compared, for instance, with the Chinese, who had already been doing landscapes in their own manner for a thousand years. But neither of the different spheres was then aware of what the other was doing; one could not influence the other.
In Europe there had been views of nature and landscape in a sense, but as adjuncts, as the backgrounds to religious scenes or portraits. When, however, early in the 16th century Pieter Bruegel the Elder made a journey from Antwerp to Italy, stopping in Switzerland, he became totally enamored of landscapes. He then proceeded to render his drawings and paintings of these vistas in so captivating a manner that the Western artists hastened to follow him.
His son Jan the Elder also went south in his 20s, and from 1592 to 1595-96 was mainly in Rome, painting and drawing, going on to Milan and Prague. He is distinguished for his landscapes, as his father is.
But their work is very different. We think of Pieter the Elder not only for his great views, but also for that plethora of strange figures with their inimitable gestures - the peasants who throng village squares, till the fields, and watch - or rather ignore - Icarus falling from the sky. Jan's people are not like that, but he created them in great numbers, either engaged in everyday tasks, or as allegorical representations.
When he returned to the Netherlands, Jan became a court painter (1606) for the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, regents in the southern Netherlands. Here Jan was successful as a draftsman and a painter of still lifes and exquisite flowers and of pictures showing his wide powers of imagery. His mountainous panoramas, his views of rivers and the sea, of hunts and battles, of Hell, were all superbly done. At least 400 paintings are known to be from his own hand.
He gave his skies wonderful atmospheric effects. That was important, since the Low Countries are particularly blessed in their marvelous heavens, the terrain being generally flat delta country bathed in a pure, unobstructed, northern light.
Jan Bruegel is sometimes called ``Velvet Bruegel,'' because of the delicacy of his brushwork, particularly effective with his flowers. He was a most versatile artist. His detailed landscapes never lost their larger sweeps, or their skies, their powerful delineations of light and shade. Some of his techniques he learned at Haarlem. He traveled there with Peter Paul Rubens, with whom he collaborated on certain pictures, Bruegel contributing the landscapes and Rubens the figures.
Both these men came from the south part of the Low Countries and remained. In time they were to be associated with the Spanish Netherlands (later Belgium), not with the seven provinces that broke away from Spain and formed the new Republic of Holland. Yet even there in a relatively safer area they felt the war, Antwerp being devastated by the Spanish troops in 1585 by the ``Spanish Fury,'' a rampage from which that thriving port never really recovered.
It was a sad, tumultuous, yet heroic era. The north refused to endure any longer the tyranny of Roman Catholic Spain and Philip the Second's brutal rule. All 17 provinces were involved in the struggle and their artists with them.
This picture, ``Landscape With Village Inn,'' oil on copper, was executed between 1610 and 1615. The colors are gentle and beautifully graded. The scene is shown in a wide view, from the open, sunny foreground, with its personages and animals, and the red brick inn on the left, flanked by two tall trees. There is a horizontal band of shadow on this middle plane. Farther on, the eye is led into the distance, past wide fields and a flowing stream, till a wood closes the view and the whole melts into a blue-green distance.
Above, the blue sky is lightened by a sunlit area of white cloud, that whiteness caught below in the color of the white horses and the white caps and aprons of the women. The scene is wholly harmonious, placid, rustic, animated but peaceful.
Detailed and exact as this work is, it holds a deeper quality, a universal feeling, something connected both with ancient Arcadia and our own times. Jan the Elder's father, Pieter the Elder, was recognized as ``depict[ing] many things which cannot be depicted.'' This picture, too, has something of that element.
The genius of the Low Country artists, whether of the south or the north, was so great, and there were so many of them (artists abounded even in the villages), that the whole region was distinguished by these painters' amazing perception of beauty in the life around them. This vision was not confined to the limits set by the outward eye.
No school of painting is more rewarding to study or gives more pleasure than that of the Netherlands, reinforced as it is by the heroic nature of the times, the genius, patriotism, and idealism that inspired the rise of Holland. Here we rightly find Jan Bruegel the Elder - everything he painted enriches us.