Where? Room 642 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Niclaes Jongelinck, a Belgian art collector and banker.
What do you see? This painting depicts the late summer harvest in Belgium. Imagine yourself standing on top of the hill in the foreground observing and listening to this 16th-century agricultural scene. Against a background of low hills and a valley, you can see more than 40 people in this painting engaged in various activities (the longer you look at this painting, the more people you discover). In the right foreground, next to the large pear tree (you can see the pears hanging in the tree), a group of hungry people is eating and drinking. They are consuming bowls with milk and cereals, pears from the tree, bread, and cheese. The person on the left of this group already fell asleep with his pants half open. You can see a church tower hidden behind the trees, just to the right of the large tree in the foreground. To the left of this group, a young man with a jar of water walks up the hill through the path that cuts through the beautiful golden wheat field. Several people are mowing the grain strains with scythes, others are binding the strains together into sheaves, and others carry the sheaves down the hill. You can also see a cart full of wheat driving down the hill. There are many more details that you can discover. For example, on top of the wheat field on the left are two birds searching for food. On the complete right, you can see a person in a tree shaking out the apples that the kids on the ground are picking up. In the middle background, you can see the sea with several boats on it.
Backstory: This painting on the harvest by the peasants in Belgium is part of a series of paintings by Bruegel that shows the agricultural activities that are usual for the different months of the year. The series probably consists of six paintings and The Harvesters represents the months July and August. Four other paintings of this series have survived: The Gloomy Day, The Hunters in the Snow, The Return of the Herd, and The Hay Harvest. Three of these paintings are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other one is in Prague. The sixth painting in this series has probably not survived (though some people think that the full series even consisted of 12 paintings). Typical for Bruegel, he did not romanticize this agricultural scene but painted a realistic picture of the peasants in late summer.
Modifications to this painting: The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired this painting in 1919. When they cleaned the painting and analyzed it, they noticed that Bruegel modified this painting on the canvas itself. Under the painting, an initial drawing of Bruegel was discovered, before he started painting it. Bruegel made several changes to this painting while painting it. For example, the right hand of the sleeping man next to the tree was in an awkward position, and Bruegel decided later to add a cap to this man that was slipping from his head to cover up this hand. If you look carefully, you can still see the bottom of his right arm through the cap. Another example is that he first painted the church and later decided to add a branch to the pear tree to cover part of the church tower. You can see the rest of the church tower under the branch. The reason that you can see these modifications is that Bruegel used only a thin layer of paint that became somewhat transparent over time.
What is humanism? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the early painters that abandoned the religious or classical themes in his paintings and focused instead on the people. This focus on people was in line with the humanist movement in society. Bruegel seemed to have been well-educated and had many humanist friends. Humanism puts the human being central and focuses on the values and behaviors of people. The impact of humanism on art was a focus on realistic depictions of people and their environments. This realism can clearly be observed in the works of Bruegel.
Who is Bruegel the Elder? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born between 1525 and 1530 in Breda in The Netherlands and died in 1569 in Brussels (his name is sometimes spelled as Brueghel). Opposite to the popular High Renaissance style developed in Italy during that time, Bruegel used a more realistic painting style which we now classify as the Northern Renaissance style. Bruegel was a specialist in genre art (scenes from everyday life) and specifically in painting landscapes and depicting peasants. The artistic talent ran in the Bruegel family, and several people in his family tree were accomplished painters as well, including the two sons of Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Fun fact: A group of about ten people in the middle of the paintings is playing a game. This game is identified as cock throwing, which was especially popular in England. On the left, you can see a rooster tied to a branch hanging in the air. The goal of the game was that people would throw sticks at the rooster until it died. The person who killed the rooster could keep it. Cock throwing is a so-called blood sport, a category of games that involved the killing or injuring of animals. These blood sports were quite popular in the 16th century. An even more popular blood sport around that time was cockfighting, a sport that is still practiced in some countries nowadays.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Written by Eelco Kappe