Monday, 27 December 2010

Winter Landscape: Hunters in the snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Hunters in the Snow is the very first painting I ever saw by Pieter Bruegel.  It was of course a reproduction and it hung on one of the walls of my primary school.

Jäger im Schnee (Winter) (Hunters in the Snow) 1565 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525 - 1569)
Oil on panel; 46 1/8 x 63 7/8 in. (117 x 162 cm)
Source: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525/30–1569) | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I loved to look at it.

First of all, it was about a snowy landscape - which is a source of great excitement to a child living in a temperate climate where the rain rarely changed to snow

Next it had such a lot going on in the picture.  You could look at it for a long time and still keep seeing new things.  I always used to think the hunters themselves seemed a bit miserable - and that all the fun was happening out on the ice.  This from the perspective of a child whose greatest excitement if it snowed was to make an ice slide and see how far I could slide and stay standing up!

Looking at it again now, what I'm struck by is:
  • How cold the picture is in terms of the colours used.  The sky has that leaden grey look associated with times of heavy snow.  The snow itself is pristine and white suggesting that not only has it snowed but also that it snows on a regular basis.
  • It has a feeling of a life lived in the snow for a long time.  The rooves of the buildings have a pitch associated with areas of heavy snow.  Lots of people are skating - because lots of people can skate!
  • How the posture of the hunters is very persuasive of a feeling of weariness and possibly melancholy.  These people really do look like they are trudging through heavy snow and have been for quite some time.  Also, although they are hunters, they don't seem to have been successful in batching very much.
  • the composition and design of the painting is intriguing.  In one sense, it's very westernised with the main figures entering from the bottom left.  There are a number of diagonals coming in from the left which all serve to focus on the skaters in the middle of the painting.  the bird and the curve in the mountain create a loop which prevent our eyes escaping out the top of the painting.  Small figures make us want to linger and make out what they are doing. 
  • the colour palette is very limited and very restrained.  However the painting employs complementary colours - the reddish brown and the blue/green/grey of the sky are opposite one another on a colour wheel.
  • how competent Bruegel is at creating living beings through silhouettes.
The painting is part of the permanent collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.  The Picture Gallery was developed from the art collection created by the House of Habsburg.  It is one of the more important collections of European paintings in the world and focuses on paintings between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.

This is what the museum has to say about it
The group of hunters returns to the low-lying village, accompanied by an exhausted pack of dogs. Only a single fox hangs on one of the spears slung over the men's shoulders. To the left preparations are afoot to singe a pig over an open fire. Delightful details such as skaters on frozen ponds have added to the picture's enormous popularity. Yet it is not the sum total of details that make the picture important, rather its overall effect. In a manner both virtuosic and consistent, Breugel evokes the impression of permanent cold.
    Bruegel also painted landscape in different seasons - and I'll return to him and his paintings as I feature landscapes from the different seasons in the coming year.

    1 comment:

    Casey Klahn said...

    They don't call the fox cunning for nothing, as it seems they all escaped but one!

    This Bruegel painting has made it into many of my art texts. Unmistakably part of the Western canon.

    I never thought about the activities and details in this before. Quite amazing.

    Another thing I see that keeps my eyes from escaping the plane (a favorite subject of mine) is the upward angle of lines as they exit the sides of the picture.

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