Pieter Bruegel the Elder a Hunters in the Snow
Hunters in the Snow, sometimes called The Return of the Hunters, is part of a series of landscapes painted on wooden panels and themed around characteristic periods of the year. The series was finished in 1565 by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, probably for Antwerp merchant Nicholas Jongelinck, who we know entrusted it to the town of Antwerp in February of 1566. The five surviving paintings from the series are The Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow, and The Gloomy Day, which now reside together at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, as well as Haymaking (Národní Galerie, Prague), and The Harvest (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.) These panels share several common features in composition and subject matter. Obviously, all are involved with the peasant lifestyle, and depict the seasons through the chores and events with which they are associated. In this respect the series is not unlike the medieval tradition of “Labors of the Months”, common depicted in illuminated books of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Cuttler points out that Bruegel’s peasant figures, like those in traditional works, are never idealized, and are always used to represent a type of person, rather than an individual character. Where the panels tend to differ from the illuminations, however, is in their tone. Bruegel appears more interested in the physical nature of the activities and their relation to the natural world, than the particular passage of time. Through his use of predominantly diagonal-flowing compositions, he leads the viewer’s eye over vast expanses of wild territory featuring lively flora and fauna, and (except in The Harvest) dramatic rock formations. Human figures are inserted into these landscapes, engaging in their own smaller dramas — Hunters in the Snow features distant firefighters putting out a chimney fire, and The Gloomy Day includes several shipwrecks — and we are above all made aware of man’s subjection to, and reliance on, the movements of the natural world. The specific purpose of the series is difficult to know. Several sources have speculated that they were made to be hung as a continuous frieze in the reception room of Jongelinck’s palatial home, but none cite specific evidence of such intent. Further speculation has nevertheless been made, based on this assumption and on the scraps of available evidence, as to the order and context in which the paintings were intended to be hung. Most historians argue either that the series originally comprised twelve panels, or six — each corresponding with a month or pair of months. The six-panel theory is the more traditional, and it is appealing because of the difficulty in matching many of the paintings to a traditional representation of any single month; Delevoy points to The Gloomy Day, in which one figure wears a paper crown — a part of the Twelfth Night celebration held in January — and others engage in pruning willow trees — a chore traditionally performed in February. Proponents of the twelve-panel theory, as Stechow points out, are supported by Jongelinck’s inventory, which lists “sixteen paintings by Bruegel, among them The Tower of Babel, A Procession to Calvary, The Twelve Months.” Not only does it refer to the series in terms of twelve months, but Stechow also deems it more likely that only two of the six paintings were omitted from the inventory, rather than the eight that would have to have been left out had the series only numbered six. Stechow goes on to argues that Hunters in the Snow was the first panel of the series, based on the rightward flow of the composition and on his assertion that it represented January. The latter point appears moot based on the fact that April, not January, was recognized as the first month of the year prior to the instatement of the Gregorian...
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