Blog Post #1 – Netherlandish Proverbs Analysis

Netherlandish Proverbs by Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1559.  Location: Staatliche Museum in Berlin, Germany. Oil on oak panel,  46” x 64” .

The painting I selected to share and analyze is titled, Netherlandish Proverbs, by the artist Peter Bruegel the Elder. This painting, which hangs in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, Germany, was painted by Bruegel in 1559. It is oil on an oak panel measuring 46” x 64” and had two former titles: The Blue Cloak and The Folly of the World. The overall style of this painting is Humanism, and it is also a form of religious Protestant art.

When I first commented on this painting in a previous class assignment, I wrote: “There were so many things to look at in this painting and many questions to contemplate regarding each character within it. Mostly: Why are they doing what they are doing? What does this painting mean as a whole? Why are people doing bad things to one another? Why are there pies on the roof? I also love this artist’s use of the color red, also shown in his painting, Peasant Wedding. I actually loved his color palette overall. This is an artist that I would like to study in depth.”

I first was attracted to the overall color palette of this painting and others by Bruegel. I particularly like his use of colonial blue with crimson red. He seems to use these two colors as focal points within his paintings, as if he wanted us to “look here first” as well as highlight areas of sin and foolishness. Subsequently, I also learned that in those days, the color blue often symbolized cheating as well as folly, while the color red symbolized sin, rudeness, and disrespect.

Secondly, I was interested in the sense of commotion and human activity throughout his works and wondered what it all meant. In the Netherlandish Proverbs, I started looking at all the characters and realized most of them were doing harmful, futile, wasteful activities, both to themselves and to others. This generated an extreme sense of curiosity on my part and I had to know more about both the artist and the theme of this painting.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, born in 1525, was a famous Flemish painter. He was a well-known member of a four-generation artist family during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of his paintings contained themes regarding the foolishness of mankind, their stupidity, absurdity, and wickedness. He portrayed many of the characters with blank, wide-eyed stares, thus identifying them as fools. His son Peter Brueghel the Younger (who added an “H” to his last name) often made copies of his father’s work. He painted up to twenty copies of this painting alone, but they were not exact duplicates. Peter Bruegel died in 1569 at the young age of 44, but both his sons Peter and Jans, carried on the family painting dynasty.

In the Netherlands, the language of the time contained a rich collection of proverbs and words of wisdom. The people were very fond of their proverbs and Erasmus himself published a collection of about 800 of them in Adagia, published in 1500. The style of Mannerism also held society’s preference for ambiguous, mysterious, hidden meanings contained in many of their visual art works.

There are estimated to be about 120 proverbs and proverbial expressions identified in the Netherlandish Proverbs, through 100 different scenes, some having more than one meaning. Many of these proverbs are still in use today. Some of my favorites illustrated in this painting include:

01. Banging one’s head against a brick wall – means trying to do something  that will never work, or one who never learns from past mistakes

02. Swimming against the tide – means making life hard for oneself

03. Casting roses before swine – means wasting time on unworthy persons

04. Armed to the teeth – means possessing many weapons

05. To carry fire in one hand and water in the other – means to be two-faced

06. Leave at least one egg in the nest – means to always save something

07. To lead each other by the nose – means to fool each other

08. The die is cast – means the decision has been made

09. To find the dog in the pot – means to be late for dinner and find all the food has been eaten, or to be too late to prevent trouble

10. To gnaw on a single bone – means to constantly talk about the same   subject over and over

11. To marry under the broomstick – means to live together without marrying

12. To have a hole in one’s roof – means to be unintelligent

13. Two fools under one hood – means stupidity loves company

14. To run like one’s backside is on fire – means to be in great distress

15. He who eats fire, craps sparks – means the possible outcome of attempting a dangerous venture

16. To toss feathers to the wind – means to work fruitlessly

17. To see bears dancing – means to be starving

18. To fall through the basket – means to have your deception uncovered

19. To barely reach from one bread loaf to another – means to have difficulty  living within a budget, or making ends meet

20. To have a toothache behind the ears – means to be avoid work by pretending to be sick, or to be a time waster

The whole chart listing 112 proverbs with a snapshot of that particular part of the painting can be found at .

Many of the illustrations are mere depictions of mankind’s foolish and impossible ways; such as the man carrying daylight in a basket, and the one who is pissing against the moon. The central figure of a woman placing a blue birdlike cloak on a man was a symbol for her cuckolding her husband; which in the old days meant she was cheating on him and having an affair behind his back.

Finally, my original question: “Why are there pies of the roof?” was answered as actually “Having one’s roof tiled with tarts”, which symbolizes someone who is very wealthy or to have an abundance of everything.

The theme within this painting, Netherlandish Proverbs, is directly tied to the style of Humanism. Humanists of the Northern Renaissance had more interest in religious ideas than in the secular. Desiderius Erasmus of Holland wrote Familiar Conversations and the Praise of Folly which poked fun at greedy businessmen, scholars and priests. In this painting, there were many humorous depictions of foolish behavior as well as more serious ones which were meant to illustrate the danger of human weaknesses which lead to sin.

This painting was successful not only because there were at least 20 different copies made by his son, but also because of the impact of the development of the print industry after Brueghel’s death. This allowed people to own prints of this painting and others; more of these were ordinary citizens, not just the wealthy.


2 thoughts on “Blog Post #1 – Netherlandish Proverbs Analysis

  1. Thanks for the wiki link.
    Still I did not find the meaning of eye on the wall with scissors sketch.

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