Drawing inspiration from Pieter Bruegel the Elder

As a photographer I’m constantly thinking about the composition of images and how to create photographs that are innovative and unique. A recent trip to Brussels and the nearby Pajottenland brought opportunities to view inspirational artworks by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, an artist who died 450 years ago.

Disclosure: My flights between Newcastle and Brussels were supplied courtesy of Loganair, which has not reviewed or approved this article.

Photographers often say that they are looking to put a unique and personal perspective on what they see. Bruegel achieved that though he lived three centuries before the invention of photography. Using his brushes and oil paint he depicted the world in ways that had never been done previously.

Statue of artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder with monkey on his shoulder in Brussels, Belgium

Statue depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Brussels, Belgium. A monkey sits on the right shoulder of the artist.

Brussels’ Royal Museum of Fine Arts

During a guided tour of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels I heard how Bruegel was the first artist to depict scenes from an elevated perspective — from a bird’s eye view — and is credited as being the first artist to paint winter landscapes.

People depicted in the painting 'The Census at Bethlehem' by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Detail from the painting ‘The Census at Bethlehem’ at Belgium’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.

What is it that inspires an artist to do something that nobody has ever previously done?

Why hadn’t artists previously stepped outside during wintertime to sketch or paint? During Bruegel’s lifetime the climate of Flanders underwent what has been termed a ‘little ice age’. Northern Europe experienced a series of harsh winters. Perhaps observing what was happening around him inspired Bruegel to depict the winter in landscapes?

Peasants walking on ice, a detail from the painting 'The Census at Bethlehem' by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

People on ice in the Bruegel painting ‘The Census at Bethlehem’ at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.

A digitised immersive experience

Bruegel certainly observed people. He is famed for his depictions of peasant life. That aspect of his painting comes to life via the digitised animation of Beyond Bruegel. The immersive experience is being projected in Brussels’ Palais de la Dynastie until January 2020. Set to music, the characters of Bruegel’s paintings are shown in detail that would be difficult to observe simply by looking at a painting in a museum gallery.

Details of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder displated at the Paleis de la Dynastie in 'Beyond Bruegel'

Works by Bruegel displayed at ‘Beyond Bruegel’ in the Paleis de la Dynastie.

The Flemish master’s depictions of feasts, such as The Peasant Wedding, count among his most celebrated works.

a Pieter Bruegel the Elder inspired artwork at the 'Feast of Fools' exhibition in Gaasbeek Castle

Part of the ‘Feast of Fools’ exhibition at Gaasbeek Castle.

That aspect of Bruegel’s work is reinterpreted by contemporary artists in the Feast of Fools exhibition, which runs at Gaasbeek Castle until 28 July 2019.

Courtyard of Gaasbeek Castle near Brussels, Belgium.

Courtyard of Gaasbeek Castle near Brussels, Belgium.

Landscape paintings by Bruegel feature scenes drawn from various locations. In that sense he worked in a similar way to a modern Photoshop artist who selects elements from multiple photos.

The Halle Gate, a medieval fortification, on a sunny day in Brussels

The Halle Gate in Brussels is also hosting an exhibition to celebrate the life and times of Bruegel.

Bruegel’s Eye at Dilbeek

The church and watermill at Dilbeek in the Pajottenland, just west of Brussels, feature in Bruegel’s works The Blind Leading the Blind and The Magpie on the Gallows.

Filip Dujardin by his work 'TOPOgrafie' in the 'Bruegel's Eye: reconstructing the landscape' exhibition at Dilbeek

Filip Dujardin by his work TOPOgrafie in the ‘Bruegel’s Eye: reconstructing the landscape’ exhibition.

The two locations are the terminal points of Bruegel’s Eye, an exhibition that encourages visitors to stroll seven kilometres through the countryside in which Bruegel worked. Continuing until 31 October 2019, the exhibition features 15 installations by artists and designers.

Portrait of Stefan Devoldere, curator of 'Bruegel's Eye: reconstructing the landscape' at Dilbeek

Portrait of Stefan Devoldere, the curator of ‘Bruegel’s Eye: reconstructing the landscape’.

450 years on from his death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s legacy continues to impress and inspire.

Koen van den Broek with his work 'Exit' exhibited as art of 'Bruegel's Eye: reconstructing the landscape'

Koen van den Broek with his work ‘Exit’ exhibited as art of ‘Bruegel’s Eye: reconstructing the landscape’.

Useful information

Take a look at the Visit Brussels and Visit Flanders websites for more information about exhibitions to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

I flew from Newcastle to Brussels with Loganair. The direct flight between the two cities has a duration of about 85 minutes.

If you want to commission a photography shoot please get in touch by emailing stuart@whyeyephotography.com or by calling 07947 587136.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder sculpture in Brussels, Belgium

Use Pinterest? Pin this for later and return to read about exhibitions in and around Brussels commemorating the life of Pieter Bruegel the Elder 450 years on from the artist’s death.

This entry was posted in Travel Photography and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. Jane 13th June 2019 at 3:35 am #

    That’s great to hear that his legacy lives on. When people think of painters they always think about Monet, Picasso, Da Vinci or Michaelangelo but he is another great painter that people should know and remember! Great article.

    • Stuart Forster 18th June 2019 at 8:24 am #

      Thank you, Jane. The details of Bruegel’s works make his paintings and prints a joy to spend time viewing.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *