Netherlandish Proverbs is an allegorical artwork painted by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, also known as “The Blue Cloak”, “Flemish Proverbs,” or “The Topsy Turvy World”.
Known for his landscapes and peasant scenes, Bruegel the Elder was a master of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting. He presents these “every day” subjects on a monumental scale.
Painted in 1559, Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs is a truly unique creation. It presents a chaotic and, at times, nightmarish scene. In the painting, humans, animals, and inanimate objects illustrate common Dutch idioms and proverbs.
General themes are identifiable, however, broadly referencing humanity's corrupted nature and foolishness. Bruegel’s original title was “The Blue Cloak or The Folly of the World”.
The blue cloak of the painting’s original title appears in the center of the composition. A wife (dressed in crimson) places the azure cloak around her husband’s head and shoulders. The proverb represents “Putting the blue cloak on her husband”, insinuating that she was cheating or deceiving him. In further references to human foolishness, another man carries a “basket of daylight”.
In his subject matter, Bruegel took inspiration from medieval manuscripts, particularly the Flemish Books of Hours. These were Christian devotional texts containing depictions of ordinary everyday life in the marginalia. The calendar scenes in these books also frequently depicted agricultural laborers in recognizable landscapes.
Bruegel worked on several smaller paintings of proverbs before creating this masterpiece. Other Pieter Bruegel paintings on similar themes included Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1556) and Twelve Proverbs (1558). Despite this, Netherlandish Proverbs was the artist’s first full-scale proverbial painting.
Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, depicts over one hundred individual proverbs and idioms. Art Historians count at least 112 proverbs, although the total amount may be more significant.
The viewer’s gaze moves around the complex composition in a circular motion. Each “scene” has equal importance within the overall landscape.
Some widely used proverbs include phrases such as “Swimming against the tide” and “Banging your head against a brick wall”. However, most of the idioms are no longer common in the Dutch language.
One of the most visible sayings in the painting is “having one’s roof tiled with tarts,” representing the idea that someone has abundant material possessions (i.e they are incredibly wealthy). This refrain also appeared in another Bruegel artwork, the Land of Cockaigne (1567).
Other more unusual Netherlandish Proverbs include “a pillar biter” (meaning to be a religious hypocrite, depicted in the lower left of the composition) and “horse droppings are not figs” (not to be fooled by appearances, with a man and a horse appearing in the upper right).
Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs painting inspired many later artists to depict proverbs, adages, and maxims. It also reveals a fascinating insight into sixteenth-century Dutch vernacular language.
Most recently, the American artist T.E. Breitenbach painted Proverbidioms, a work surpassing Bruegel for the number of proverbs depicted. In this artwork, Breitenbach depicts over 300 sayings represented in a literal, comical manner.
Bruegel was also a significant formative influence on later Dutch Golden Age painters. He informed and inspired the work of true masters such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn.
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