Text by Deanna MacDonald
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It is probable that this painting originally hung in the Antwerp residence of Niclaes Jongelinck, a prosperous, well-educated merchant. He had commissioned a series of six paintings from Pieter Bruegel, a successful local artist. Jongelinck knew he was getting a master’s work but what he would not have realized is that his new paintings marked a turning point in Western art and that history would judge Bruegel to be one of the greatest artists of 16th-century Europe.
Five of the six paintings, which depict the seasons or times of the year, survive: Gloomy Day (early spring), The Return of the Herd (autumn) and Hunters in the Snow (winter) are today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Haymaking (early summer) is in Nelahozeves Castle, Czech Republic; and this painting, the Harvesters (high summer) is now a highlight of the Metropolitan. The painting depicting spring is lost.
Bruegel’s choosen subject was a popular one. The seasons were frequently depicted in illuminated manuscript calendars (the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, are a well know example). Most educated Europeans in the 16th-century would have read Virgil’s Georgics, which celebrated the virtues of a peasant life revolving around nature’s cycles. However, Bruegel’s picture is not a poetic vision, but is rather reflective of the artist’s personal observations and narrative genius.
The entire cycle shows lives lived close to the land. The scenes are not idealized and nor are the individuals who are portrayed as types: an old woman, a strong youth. The people are there to animate a scene of nature’s recurring cycles: each year this scene of harvesting repeats itself with different individuals. Bruegel brings out the humanity of the types with meaningful gesture: a hungry young worker slurping down his food; a woman bending over a bundle of wheat suggesting the back-breaking nature of the work; another so exhausted that he has sprawled out on the ground and fallen asleep, his mouth hanging open – he could be snoring. This is a bountiful harvest but it is nevertheless achieved by strenuous labour.
Gone was the religious pretext for landscape painting. Instead of using landscape as simply the settling for a biblical or mythological story, Bruegel makes nature itself, including human nature, the subject. Bruegel was a humanist and a skilled observer of nature in all forms, including mankind, and in this series, he celebrates nature and man’s part in it. These pastoral scenes show the life of Everyman, the work of the year carried out for generations. Bruegel’s vision is at once human and universal, with sympathy for mankind and its small part in the eternal cycle of nature. He mixes the world around him with allegory and popular proverbs giving layers to his imagery.
Little is known of Bruegel’s life. His was probably born in 1525. Popular myth has assumed he must have been a peasant but scholars now believe he was a townsman who developed close ties with educated circles. He worked in the Low Countries and around 1552-53 travelled to Italy, where he was influenced by Renaissance compositional techniques and also by humanism. Yet his style remained essentially northern, but with a mix of new and old: he continued the precise realism of the Northern renaissance and depicted a North European reality yet he approach landscape in a new way, giving nature itself primacy and unifying genre scenes and landscape. His sons, Pieter II (1564-1638) and Jan (1586-1625) continued the successful Bruegel family workshop.
This painting has travelled extensively. In 1594 the entire cycle were purchased by the Antwerp City Council as a gift for Archduke Ernst, the Habsburg Governnor of the Netherlands, based in Brussels. From there it travelled to Prague to join the vast collections of Rudolf II. It remained in Habsburg hands in Vienna until the early 19th-century when it was sold in Paris. It was finally sold to the Met around 1912-19.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1565 Jacopo Tintoretto: Crucifixion, Venice, Scuola di San Rocco
1567 Joachim Beuckelaer: Market Scene, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum