BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussels)
The Peasant and the Birdnester1568
Oil on panel, 59 x 68 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Painted in the year before the artist's death, this painting, like other late works such as The Land of Cockaigne, The Peasant Dance and The Peasant Wedding, is dominated by monumental figures. Immediately after his return from Italy, Bruegel showed no apparent interest in Italian figure-types and compositions, reverting to the Antwerp tradition in which he had been trained. However, in these late works he shows that his study of Italian painting had taken root; these figures demonstrate his knowledge of Italian art and in particular the art of Michelangelo.
This unusual subject apparently illustrates a Netherlandish proverb: 'He who knows where the nest is, has the knowledge; he who robs it, has the nest.' The painting presents a moralizing contrast between the active, wicked individual and the passive man who is virtuous in spite of adversity. It has been suggested that, with his knowledge of Italian art, Bruegel intended the peasant's gesture as a profane parody of the gesture of Leonardo's St John.
It is not the birdnester whom Bruegel has placed in the foreground but the pensive man, who, his head slightly raised, has not noticed that he is about to fall into the brook. Bruegel will presumably have been interested less in the proverb than in the body of the young man, who is on the point of losing his balance and will fall forwards. In The Parable of the Blind, from the same year, the artist presents the observer with a side-on view of the different stages of falling.