Pieter Brueghel (Bruegel), the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (2003)

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria



 The beauty of Pieter Brueghel the Elder's (1525-1569) beloved painting, "Hunters in the Snow," (1565) is extraordinary, and can be enjoyed on many levels...just by looking at and absorbing the totality of the work, then letting the eye and mind range over it from area to area, object to object...the beautifully painted hunters, their dogs, the trees and village houses scattered in the snow, the distant valley ponds with skaters, the birds and expressively thrusting distant peaks.


 When we begin to think about the painting and what the artist has done to accomplish his vision, we find the beauty lies in its vital design pattern of contrasting lights and darks, its clarity of realistic, poetic observation and the profundity of meaning he has instilled in a scene that lesser artists would make into mere anecdote, story-telling.  Brueghel creates not only a painting of 16th Century country life in Flanders, but a universal statement of the beauty of life and nature, and the aspirations of mankind.  


 While the dark foreground hunters, their dogs and the trees contrast beautifully, in terms of aesthetics, with the snowy hill they trudge upon, the white rooftops of houses and the distant white vista, the darkness of the hunters also suggests a downcast psychological, spiritual and emotional state of being as well.  


 The painter's skill and clarity of observation create forms that are both very real and, at the same time, abstract in their simple directness, merging three-dimensional form with two-dimensional pattern.  The artist is able to distill reality, capturing its elemental essence devoid of any extraneous detail (every great artist has their personal understanding and manifestation of the essentials of realistic form).


 The basic design movement of the composition is strongly diagonal from the hunters in the lower left to the upper right corner and its distant snowy crags, toward which the hunters seem to walk with a certain head-down weariness.  This diagonal movement is strongly supported by the diminishing perspective of the four foreground trees.  A diagonal counter-movement from lower right to middle and upper left cannot deflect the hunters' progress toward the goal of the crags, though it clearly creates the demarcation line between the everyday, earthly life of the foreground and the visionary distance.


 For this is the ultimate purpose and meaning of the painting, and what raises it to the level of a universal statement.  It expresses the poetry of life; man's quest for meaning and purpose by means of, and beyond, the everyday struggle for existence.   Because they are deeply involved in their quest, the hunters and their dogs are oblivious of the three small figures they pass on their left, working around a fire in front of the largest house.  The difference between the hunters and the fire-tenders is that the latter are unaware of any higher purpose or quest beyond their daily tasks, while the hunters doggedly pursue greater meaning, symbolized by the distant, craggy peaks (they are "hunters," after all, men who "hunt," look for, seek to find...not game in this instance...but truth).   The hunters may be dispirited at the moment, doubting, wondering if they will ever reach their goal – carrying their darkness with them -- but they are aware that the goal exists, and continue to plod forward despite their weariness and doubt.


 Four dark birds in the twiggy tops of the trees, and one in flight – the latter seeming to aim directly at the crags, and certainly providing a compositional link between the hunters and the peaks – create a directional line of perspective convergence toward the crags in conjunction with the tree trunks where they enter the snow.  The flying dark bird, overlapping the lower slopes of the peaks like an airborne cross, seems symbolic of the spiritual aspirations of the hunters as they seek to reach the abode of deity in the snowy peaks.



Pieter Brueghel's painting may be seen by clicking on the thumbnail picture at the following web address:



Copyright by Don Gray


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