BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)

The Hunters in the Snow (January)

Oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This is the first of a series of paintings of the Months, of which only five remain. This painting representing January reveals winter's firm grip on the countryside. Three hunters return with only a rabbit to show for their efforts. Their feet press into the powdery snow. Nearby rabbit prints mark its recent passage. The tired dogs shiver against the cold. Snow blankets the world. Bruegel deftly dusted the bushes and tree branches in white. The ponds below are frozen, and great icicles hand from the millwheel on the lower right. Leafless trees dot the countryside. Bruegel subtle colour palette with its muted earth tones perfectly evokes the season. It also masks the obvious cross-diagonal construction of the landscape. The four trees in the foreground conveniently diminish in perspective. The figures are not the picture's primary subject, yet we, like the child at left, eagerly watch the roaring fire or mentally prepare to join the skaters below. Figures transverse distant fields. Others attempt to douse the chimney fire in the farmhouse just beyond the village church. Although Bruegel recounted a particular time of year, there is a timeless quality about the picture.

The painting may strike the observer as a natural view of the landscape, but in fact it reveals Bruegel's great artistry in stylisation. The picture is dominated by two "cold" colours, namely the white of the snow and the pale green of the sky and the ice. People, trees, dogs, birds are all dark or black, thereby contradicting the customary colour associations: winter brings sleep and death.