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Foto: Ans Brys

A shadowy life

We know much less about the great Pieter Bruegel than we do, for example, about Rubens, who lived two generations later. We have many of Rubens’ letters and he left a very extensive body of work. This is not the case with Bruegel. So what do we actually know about him?

  • The young Bruegel went to study with Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a very versatile artist, in the 1540s. Coecke had a studio in Antwerp for many years. There, Bruegel met his master’s young daughter, who later became his wife: Mayken Coecke. Pieter Coecke died in 1550.
  • 1551: Bruegel is self-supporting. He becomes a member of Antwerp’s Guild of St Luke, which defends the interests of artists. By this time he is in his twenties.
  • 1552-1554: Bruegel travels via the South of France and the Alps to Italy, making his way right down to the south; he also lives in Rome. We know this from his drawings. According to his biographer Karel van Mander, the Alps make a deep impression on Bruegel.
  • 1554 or 1555: after his return, Bruegel works for the Antwerp publisher of prints Hieronymus Cock. He may settle in Antwerp (again) in around 1555. His collaboration with Cock is intense.
  • 1563: Bruegel marries Mayken Coecke in the Kapellenkerk in Brussels. From then on, he lives in Brussels. Is this in order to be closer to the centre of power, and to potential clients?
  • 1569: Bruegel dies in Brussels. He is between 38 and 43 years old. There is still a memorial to him in the Kapellenkerk in Brussels. Jan Bruegel is still a baby when his father dies; his elder brother Pieter is five. Their mother, Mayken Coecke, dies ten years later. The two brothers learn painting from their grandmother among other teachers.
  • Like Pieter, his two sons live and work in Antwerp. Pieter the Younger is enrolled in the Guild of St Luke in 1585 as a ‘son of a master’ (and as a free master); Jan follows suit in 1597.