April 16, 2005

Bruegel’s Proverbs

I had wondered about the origin and meaning of the first of the images below since I first saw it a little more than a year ago in Johann Theodor de Bry’s 1627 emblem-book Proscenium vitæ humanæ. I posted de Bry’s version of it here. The same image, I discovered, had also appeared in de Bry’s earlier (1611) volume Emblemata Sæcularia. I had read that de Bry had borrowed several of his images from engravings of works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but it wasn’t until I saw a version of this engraving among a series of Bruegel’s ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ in the emblem-compilation Théâtre d’Amour, that I understood that this was one of them.

'There is always a way to a rich man's money,' engraving after a design by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559/69.

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'The rich man playing violin on the jawbone,' engraving after a design by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559/69.

It turns out then, that the image that had intrigued me was a simple, but witty illustration of a proverb to the effect of ‘there is always a way to a rich man’s money.’ This, and the other engravings shown here were published as a set by one Jan Wierix, in 1568 or ’69, but are based on designs made by Bruegel some ten years earlier, at the same time he was making a painting on the same subject. The second image, above, illustrates another barbed maxim on the subject of wealth: ‘the music of a rich man is always pleasant, even when he plays on a jawbone.’

'Every peddler praises his goods,' engraving after a design by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559/69.

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'He who often gives without return, wastes another arrow to retrieve the first,' engraving after a design by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559/69.

We read that Bruegel did not, in general, execute engravings such as these himself, but rather:

Bruegel made the drawings, which the engravers reproduced on copper […] which the printsellers edited and distributed. Now, despite the number of interpreters and the variety of the work, one is struck by the close relationship that exists among the prints originating from Bruegel’s pen or pencil. From this one must conclude that the preparatory drawings were extremely detailed [and] were easily transposable, stroke for stroke, onto metal. In his composition Bruegel foresees the effects to be achieved in the engraving and leaves no freedom to the engravers, whose job is to reproduce rather than interpret his work.
'The fool, hatching an empty egg,' engraving after a design by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559/69.

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'The selfish man who warms his hands at his burning house,' engraving after a design by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559/69.

The images and the quotation above I have taken from a book by Jacques Lavalleye, entitled Bruegel and Lucas van Leyden: Complete Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts, published by Abrams ca. 1967. Click on the images to see them enlarged.

Posted by misteraitch at April 16, 2005 10:33 AM
Comments

Isnt the first image so similar to one of the figures of EL Boscos Garden of Earthly Delights?

Posted by: mentira on April 16, 2005 05:09 PM

I haven't visited this site in far too long - those engravings are marvellous. Witty, and interesting.

Posted by: MissMeliss on April 16, 2005 09:14 PM

That's what it was after all!!

Posted by: claudia on April 20, 2005 11:20 PM

I haven't thanked you for the wonderful images you've brought into my life. I wish I had them all and could just paste them on the walls. That would be a great space to live in.

Posted by: Melinama on April 22, 2005 07:35 PM
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