Text by Geoffrey Smith


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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Return of the Herd – 1563

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

The five extant panels featuring the Seasons of the Year are among Bruegel's finest works. Originally commissioned by the Antwerp banker Nicolaes Jongelinck, three hang in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. One, The Harvesters, is held by the Metropolitan Museum, New York and the other is in Prague. Art historians did not identify the five panels as part of a series until the 1920’s. This precipitated a lengthy debate as regards the original number of panels that formed the cycle – were there twelve months? – in which case there were seven missing – or were the paintings a depiction of the four seasons? – in which case one panel was superfluous to requirements. Recent research has shown that there were originally six paintings, linked to the labours of the year, and probably divided bi-monthly. Arguments persist but a reasonable case can be made for the three panels in Vienna to be considered as:

The Gloomy Day: Early Spring – February / March

The Return of the Herd: Autumn – October / November

Hunters in the Snow: Winter – December / January

The Return of the Herd (Autumn)

We are witness to the seasonal movement of men and animals known as transhumance – in this case, the return from summer pasture in the mountains to the shelter of lowland grazing for winter – an event that would, of course, not have been seen in the Low Countries but which Bruegel recalled with the assistance of a number of sketches from his travels to Italy.

This takes place in a landscape not dissimilar from the Gloomy Day – mountains fringe a coastal inlet and storm clouds advance from the right, signifying the onset of the darker days of late Autumn and a change from the earlier sparkling weather to the left. The year has turned and the fattened beasts are prodded onwards by their attendant herdsmen down the path between the avenue of leafless trees towards the waiting village. The vastness of the scene is the context in which this particular microcosm of the cycle of life is portrayed – a tenuous existence where the arrival of the herd is a vital element in the survival of the settlement through the coming winter.

Bruegel does not reproduce a topographical representation of a particular scene but presents us with a dramatic tableau of nature’s grandeur and of man’s (more specifically his wonderfully observed peasants) place within it.

Contemporary Works

c1560 Titian: The Tribute Money, London, National Gallery

1565 Jacopo Bassano: Adoration of the Magi, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

1566 Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Fire, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

Anne of Cleves

Hans Holbein the Younger

The Ambassadors (Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve)

Hans Holbein the Younger

Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror

Parmigianino

© Great Works of Western Art 2020