Tuesday 11 December 2012

Local topographies and vaster worlds: Hunters in the Snow

Cycling to and from work today, through a frozen, sub-zero landscape, I have been drawn into my favourite landscape painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Hunters in the Snow.

The picture is one of a series of panels, completed in 1565, representing the activities of Flemish peasant communities during the changing seasons (and symbolising December and January). This calendar-based cosmology was a common motif in medieval art, rooted in religious iconography; but Bruegel and his contemporaries were the first to crystallise such scenes of interacting nature and humanity into what would later become the established genre of 'factual' landscape painting, encompassing "...both local topographies and vaster worlds..." (Cosgrove, 2008).  

Art historians also find interest in the work as an early example of the use of perspective in landscape painting:
"Our eye roams from a high vantage point over an extensive, diverse landscape that develops from the cultivated foreground area to an ever wilder nature in the distance. Principle lines direct the eye along a diagonal that begins with the houses on the left, accentuated by a stark row of bare trees, and extends to the lower right, into the valley. Only there, where it runs up against the mountain barrier and takes the opposite, diagonal direction towards the plain extending left to the horizon, is a sense of depth created which counters the dominant horizonal of a panorama" (Wolf, 2008).
On a broader historical note the painting presents stark evidence of the severity of winter throughout the so-called Little Ice Age, a period of comparatively lower global temperatures during the post-medieval/ early modern period. 
Self portrait of Bruegel, who died in 1569, aged 44
For me though, the fascination of this picture is its representation of 'real' people and their day-to-day activities in a living, naturalistic landscape; in the words of Kenneth Clark "the expression of an all-embracing sympathy with humanity...in which the accidents of human life are one with the weather and seasons. Few works of art are less in need of commentary". No figures here from heroic mythology or religious representations of ecstatic joy or demonic pain and damnation. There is real empathy with the hunter's and their dogs returning, weary from a day in the woods and fields. 

And each viewing spotlights a different element of small detail: the inn sign hanging precariously from its awning; the frozen water-wheel; the people, young and old, playing various games on the iced-over ponds; the snow-covered bramble in the foreground and the various breeds of dog in the pack accompanying the eponymous hunters.

The framework for these scenes within a scene is the expertly realised combination of the sturdy-looking buildings of the village (no rude hovels here), the blue-grey of the wintry sky and frozen watercourses, the skeletal woods and trees of the foreground, middle and far distance and the all-pervading whiteness of the snow. To me the only wrong note (a weakness it seems of many landscape artists) is the depiction of the distant high ground as ludicrously precipitous crags; this remember is Flanders!

Other less well-known but no less interesting pictures in the 1565 cycle include:

The Gloomy Day (February-March)

  The Hay Harvest (June-July)
 The Corn Harvest (August-September)
The Return of the Herd (October-November)

Select Bibliography

Andrews, Malcolm, 1999 Landscape and Western Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Clark, Kenneth, 1966 Landscape in Art. London: Pelican

Cosgrove, Denis, 2008 Geography & Vision: Seeing, imagining and representing the world. London: IB Tauris

Shama, Simon, 1996 Landscape and Memory. London: Fontana 

Wolf, Norbert, 2008 Landscape Painting. Cologne: Taschen

1 comment:

  1. Good post. Reminds me that 'Corn Harvest' forms a cornerstone of Tim Ingold's 'Temporality of Landscape' essay; a great, yet much maligned, piece...


Please add your comments here.