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Very little is known of the life of Pieter Bruegel the Elder whose enigmatic, humorous, sometimes grotesque paintings remain among the most distinctive examples of Netherlandish art. Though he had travelled to Italy, Bruegel turned his back on the popular Italianate styles of the time and developed traditional Netherlandish genres of painting. In Bruegel’s fantastical landscapes it was the common peasant folk that took centre stage, often sidelining the saints and members of the holy family, who were the supposed ‘subjects’ of many of his artworks. His paintings and etchings served as windows into other worlds, illustrating the mountains and rivers of far off lands, a geography that was exotic to the people of the flat Netherlands. Bruegel lived through a period of immense social and religious upheaval, in which the Catholic Habsburgs were determined to crush the growing ranks of Protestant dissenters in the Netherlands. The growth in trade and commerce had a similarly monumental, if less bloody, impact on Bruegel as he was among the first artists to paint almost exclusively for the growing class of merchants and intellectuals. Bruegel’s greatness lies in his ability to combine gritty humour with a unique style of political comment, which has since never been equalled.
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