The greatest of the Flemish sixteenth-century masters of genre was Pieter Bruegel the Elder. We know little of his life except that he had been to Italy, like so many northern artists of his time, and that he lived and worked in Antwerp and Brussels, where he painted most of his pictures in the 1560s, the decade in which the stern Duke of Alva arrived in the Netherlands. The dignity of art and of artists was probably as important to him as it was to Dürer or Cellini, for in one of his splendid drawings he is clearly out to point a contrast between the proud painter and the stupid-looking bespectacled man who fumbles in his purse as he peers over the artist's shoulder.
The 'kind' of painting on which Bruegel concentrated was scenes from peasant life. He painted peasants merrymaking, feasting, and working, and so people have come to think of him as one of the Flemish peasants. This is a common mistake which we are apt to make about artists. We are often inclined to confuse their work with their person. We think of Dickens as a member of Mr. Pickwick's jolly circle, or of Jules Verne as a daring inventor and traveler. If Bruegel had been a peasant himself he could not have painted them as he did. He certainly was a townsman and his attitude towards the rustic life of the village was very likely similar to that of Shakespeare, for whom Quince the Carpenter and Bottom the Weaver were a species of 'clown'. It was the custom at that time to regard the country yokel as a figure of fun. I do not think that either Shakespeare or Bruegel accepted this custom out of snobbery, but in rustic life human nature was less disguised and covered up with a veneer of artificiality and convention than in the life and manners of the gentlemen [artists such as] Hilliard portrayed. Thus, when they wanted to show up the folly of humankind, playwrights and artists often took low life as their subject.
One of the most perfect of Bruegel's human comedies is his famous picture of a country wedding. Like most pictures, it loses a great deal in reproduction: all details become much smaller, and we must therefore look at it with double care. The feast takes place in a barn, with straw stacked up high in the background. The bride sits in front of a piece of blue cloth, with a kind of crown suspended over her head. She sits quietly, with folded hands and a grin of utter contentment on her stupid face. The old man in the chair and the woman beside her are probably her parents, while the man farther back, who is so busy gobbling his food with his spoon, may be the bridegroom. Most of the people at the table concentrate on eating and drinking, and we notice this is only the beginning. In the left-hand corner a man pours out beer - a good number of empty jugs are still in the basket - while two men with white aprons are carrying ten more platefuls of pie or porridge on an improvised tray. One of the guests passes the plates to the table. But much more is going on. There is the crowd in the background trying to get in; there are the musicians, one of them with a pathetic, forlorn and hungry look in his eyes, as he watches the food being carried past; there are the two outsiders at the corner of the table, the friar and the magistrate, engrossed in their own conversation; and there is the child in the foreground, who has got hold of a plate, and a feathered cap much too large for its little head, and who is completely absorbed in licking the delicious food - a picture of innocent greed. But what is even more admirable than all this wealth of anecdote, wit and observation, is the way in which Bruegel has organized his picture so that it does not look crowded or confusing. Tintoretto himself could not have produced a more convincing picture of a crowded space than did Bruegel with his device of the table receding into the background and the movement of people starting with the crowd at the barn door, leading up to the foreground and the scene of the food carriers, and back again through the gesture of the man serving the table who leads our eyes directly to the small but central figure of the grinning bride.
In these gay, but by no means simple, pictures, Bruegel had discovered a new kingdom for art which the generations of Netherlandish painters after him were to explore to the full."