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The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Kunsthistorisches Museum Guide

Updated: Jul 1



The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel

The Hunters in the Snow is an oil painting on panel by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, today exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria and depicting winter.


Completed in 1565, this painting is the tangible proof of how, at the time of Bruegel, the world as people knew it had changed and was still changing. The tumultuous wave that was hitting the entire Europe and the Low Countries in particular influenced Bruegel a great deal, determining the way he painted, the subjects he chose and the commissioners he worked for.


In this artwork profile, we will understand how and why The Hunters in the Snow played a significant role in the history of art!


 

In this article:


Artwork Profile: The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

 



Artwork Profile: The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder



1. OVERVIEW


Title: The Hunters in the Snow - original name: Jagers in de Sneeuw (Dutch) - name in current location: Die Jäger im Schnee (German)

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569)

Execution: 1565

Commissioner: Nicolaes Jonghelinck, wealthy merchant and banker from Antwerp

Style: Flemish Renaissance

Subject: Representation of winter (December/January), inspired by the cycle of the Labours of the Months

Technique: oil on oak wood panel

Dimensions: 117x162cm / 43x63in

Ticket: Yes (full price: 21€)



2. THE ARTIST: PIETER BRUEGHEL THE ELDER AND THE FLEMISH RENAISSANCE


The medium-sized panel painting of The Hunters in the Snow, today a treasure of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was painted by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder and completed in Antwerp by February 1565, just a few years before the passing of its author.



Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569) and his time

There is much about Pieter Bruegel that we don't know, including his date of birth and hometown. Bruegel was likely born a peasant in a small village in today- the Netherlands and these poor origins, along with the manual jobs he would always exercise, meant that the documents surrounding his childhood years likely never existed or were not considered worthy of keeping.


What we know about his early life comes from his post-mortem biographers and from supposition: since there is a first mention of him in Antwerp in 1551 when he registered in the painters' guild as a free master, and since the registration normally took place at the age of max. 25, we can calculate his birth around 1525 and 1530.



A probable self-portrait of Pieter Bruegel the Elder
A probable self-portrait of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

We know for sure that Bruegel was born into a period in history that would be remembered as difficult and transitional, especially for people coming from what are today Belgium and the Netherlands. The Protestant revolution was taking over in Northern Europe and political turmoil was shacking these territories, making life extremely unstable and uncertain. At the same time, overwhelming revolutions were also disrupting the arts and culture world, in this case not for the worst. The 16th century was the time when the Italian Renaissance, now mature and turning into Mannerism, would strongly influence the entire continent, reaching Bruegel.


Indeed, right after registering himself as a free master (meaning that he had completed his apprenticeship and could now exercise), in 1551 Bruegel set off for Italy in search of inspiration. He would return in 1554, forever changed but never forgetful of his origins.


From 1554 to 1563, Bruegel lived in Antwerp - a lively and wealthy city with a strong presence of rich merchants - where he worked as a designer of prints for publishing companies. The printing of books was also a relative novelty and images had recently begun to be included as well. By the end of this decade spent in Antwerp, Bruegel had found his true passion and was almost solely painting.


Newly married, he eventually moved to Brussels in 1563, where he would stay until his premature death in 1569, leaving two sons behind. Even though their father would not live enough to train them, they would become such famous and skilled painters as to give our Pieter the nickname "the Elder" to distinguish him from his eldest son Pieter and to separate the generations.



The Flemish Renaissance

The artistic style of Pieter Bruegel the Elder belongs to what is called "Flemish Renaissance", a section of the Northern Renaissance, so-called to set it out from its popular precursor and model, the Italian Renaissance.


In fact, although Renaissance is immediately linked to Italy and the Peninsula is where some of the greatest masters of art operated, Northern Europe was not untouched by the infinite changes brought by the re-discovery of ancient philosophy and culture, and by Humanism (philosophical thought that put the human being at the center of the universe and rejected the religion- and theological-centered vision of the world typical of the Middle Ages). The ideals spread by the Renaissance in culture and arts soon reached artists and creatives of the whole of Europe, who began to apply the new ideas to their works, the influence of the Italian style sometimes more and sometimes less visible.


Villagers On Their Way to Church (1550) by Simon Bening, another exponent of Flemish Renaissance
Villagers On Their Way to Church (1550) by Simon Bening, another exponent of Flemish Renaissance

In the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), Renaissance lasted one century (the 16th) and had Antwerp as its center. There, where religion was always perceived differently than in Southern Europe and folklore and traditions were particularly strong, the new use of perspective, depth and proportion resulted in new genres, leaving often behind the classic religious and Biblical subjects in favour of nature and everyday life.


As for Bruegel, the Italian years of his life surely had an impact on him and his style, but he followed the lead of his Flemish peers: the landscapes of Italy fascinated him more than the art of Michelangelo and Raphael and, although he surely saw their masterpieces and learned from them, he would remain strongly linked to his origins.



3. HISTORY AND COMMISSION


Retracing the history of paintings is never easy, especially because they were often sold or gifted and the documents stating these passages did not always survive or ever existed. The attentive collections of modern museums would take long to become the norm!


The Hunters in the Snow was completed in 1565 and handed over to its commissioner, the wealthy banker merchant from Antwerp Nicolaes Jonghelinck. The painting was part of a series of 6 or perhaps 12 other works depicting the Labours of the Months, but we will return to this later. Also, Nicolaes Jonghelinck commissioned another of Bruegel's masterpieces, The Tower of Babel.


Anyway, the painting was originally meant as a wall decoration for the lavish country mansion of Nicolaes, which would be later destroyed during the devastating Eighty Years' War (1568-1648). Indeed, as early as 1594, the Hunters in the Snow is already stated as property of a Spanish Archduke, probably given to him as a gift or taken by force.


From that moment, we know very little of The Hunters's endeavours, except that at some point it must have ended in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) in Prague, and by the mid-17th century it was in Austria, eventually exhibited in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, founded in 1891 to host the Imperial collection, where it can still be seen today.




The Series of Paintings

The Hunters of the Snow was not created alone but was part of a series of 12 or 6 works, of which 5 survived. They were all made to decorate the residence of the same commissioner, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, and at the time of his death in 1570, the series was reported as a property of the merchant, with a vague mention of 12 paintings in total.


However, a few years later the paintings became 6, then 5 soon after: it may be that Bruegel painted 6 panels (1 for 2 months), then one of them got quickly lost during transfers.


Today, this is what we still have (3 can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches Museum!)


  • The Gloomy Day (February/March) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

  • The Hay Harvest (June/July) at Lobkowicz Palace in Prague

  • The Harvesters (August/September) at the MET in New York

  • The Return of the Herd (October/November) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

  • The Hunters in the Snow (December/January) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna


READ NEXT: Another masterpiece of Pieter Bruegel at the Kunsthistorisches is The Peasant Wedding



The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


4. DESCRIPTION


The Hunters in the Snow is a medium-sized painting that, without a frame, measures 117x162cm / 43x63in. It was painted using the common technique of applying oil on an oak wood panel.


It depicts a snow-filled winter landscape with colors mostly in the ranges of grey and blue, applied to convey the harshness of winter and the desolation that characterizes the colder months of the year: the trees in the foreground are bare, everything is covered by a thick layer of snow, the watermill on the bottom left is frozen and so is the lake in the medium ground. The sky is painted in the tones of light blue and grey, faithfully reporting the impossibility of locating the clouds in foggy and humid winter days.


What we see is most likely an Alpine landscape, one Bruegel must have seen on his way back from Italy: no such peaks exist in the Flanders, where he came from.


In the immediate front, on the left, is a group of three hunters returning from an unsuccessful hunt with their dogs: the meagre outcome is hinted at by the way the men proceed and the dogs follow, their heads lowered. In fact, the only spoil they bring home is the small corpse of a fox, hanging from one hunter's back. The footprints of another small animal signal that the prey escaped.


The Hunters in the Hunters in the Snow


On the extreme left beside the hunters is a blazing fire with people gathered around it: it's a tavern, as shown by the sign hanging over the heads of the group. The sign presents the depiction of St. Hubertus or St. Eustace, patrons of the hunters.


Tavern sign and blazing fire


Behind the hunters and the bare trees is a group of snow-covered roofs, a bridge and a frozen watermill. On the bridge, a woman passes by carrying what looks like a heavy bunch of firewood, while another woman drags a third one with a sleigh on the frozen lake below.


Frozen watermill

In the back, the lake enlarges and several silhouettes are seen playing winter games and doing the most random activities: this scene is put in high contrast with that of the hunters and their dogs, presenting the two faces of winter. In Bruegel's time, winter was harsh and the pleasures very limited. However, it was also when the fields could not be either treated or harvested and therefore people had more free time to play. Those games were likely the best diversions people had.


Behind the lake the buildings get smaller, the trees barely outlined: this is how Bruegel gave depth and sense of proportion to the painting.


Frozen Lake with Winter games


At least two symbols are included in the scene: the tavern sign is falling off and crows and magpies are painted resting on trees or flying. Any falling, broken or decaying element in paintings of this epoch and area is likely a symbol of the ephemeral nature of life, a reminder that, no matter how much we can entertain ourselves in winter, a new spring will not come for us at some point. Samely, crows and magpies were considered ill omens and symbolized the Devil, another reminder of how we are constantly tempted and subject to mistakes.


Birds in the Hunters in the Snow


5. THE SUBJECT


As we mentioned, The Hunters in the Snow is a representation of deep winter, probably the months of December and January.


This subject was not common in Bruegel's time, as art was mainly dominated by religious themes, portraits and other propaganda-related aspects of life. In fact, this work might be one of the very first depictions of winter in painting ever made in Western art, at least since Antiquity.


➊ So why did Bruegel choose winter? The idea of depicting winter probably came both from his commissioner (a merchant who lived in the country) and from the old tradition of representing the Labours of the Months, a subject widely known and used all around Europe during the Middle Ages.



Example of the Labours of the Months as seen in the manuscript known as "The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry" (1412-1416)
Example of the Labours of the Months as seen in the manuscript known as "The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry" (1412-1416)


The Labours of the Months

A typically medieval theme, the Labours of the Months were a representation of God's order in the everyday life of normal people, as defined by agricultural and pastoral activities.


Normally, the Labours of the Months were expressed in a cycle of 12 images, one per each month. Every month was assigned a specific action and came with symbols and objects of the corresponding season: in the case of The Hunters in the Snow, which depicts the month of December or January or possibly both, there is no agricultural activity going on because winter meant a break from the fields, whereas hunting, gathering and playfulness were practised instead.


The cycle of the Labours was often found in churches - in the form of sculptures or depicted on the flooring - but was especially common in manuscripts, included in the so-called Books of Hours. The Books of Hours were a sort of compendium for the regular Christian, to be used as a calendar and to count the hour and pray according to time, day, and season.


There is no doubt Bruegel knew this subject since infancy, like everyone else probably did! The real surprise is that he decided to paint it on a panel, leaving us with one of the very first painted representations of winter we know of.


➊ And why was Bruegel allowed to choose this subject? When Pieter Bruegel was alive, the world was drastically changing. The Protestant Reformation was underway, and the first area to convert was Northern Europe, Flanders included. Protestantism would bring an iconoclastic wave, basically ending the trend of decorating churches with altarpieces, frescoes and any other representations of saints and of God. This is why churches in Catholic regions are so lavishly embellished and Protestant ones are often whitewashed.

Moreover, religion had always been perceived differently in the Low Countries and was more based on local traditions than on the Holy Seat's preaches - the passage to Protestantism was therefore easier and many Flemish artists quickly dropped the usual subjects in favor of local symbolism and folklore. Last but not least, the Flanders were trade lands, where merchants crowded the main ports, Antwerp included. Merchants, unlike in Italy where they could aspire to political power (think of the Medici family), were not interested in propaganda and often commissioned works for their own residences and for private use. This, combined with Protestantism, led to the demand for new subjects and genres.



6. ARTISTIC AND HISTORIC IMPORTANCE


If you have come this far in this profile of The Hunters in the Snow, you may already know why this painting holds a huge artistic and historic importance, but let's quickly sum this up!


Artistic Importance: the artistic importance of this painting comes from its author first. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with his peculiar style and choice of subjects, revolutionized Flemish art and brought it right into Renaissance, forerunning what would be considered the Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish art. His works, among them The Hunters in the Snow, would influence the great generations to come of artists from his homeland, his own sons included. The details he always inserted in his paintings (although he was not the only one to do it) would remain as a symbol of Flemish art of his epoch.


Historic Importance: Bruegel's works and The Hunters of the Snow with them are a mirror of their author's time. Their secular subjects and commissioners reflect the enormous changes going on during the 16th century in the Low Countries, both on political and religious grounds.



 


⚪READ NEXT: MORE MASTERPIECES OF THE KUNSTHISTORISCHES:



7. WHERE AND HOW TO VISIT





The Hunters in the Snow can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, along with The Gloomy Day and The Return of the Herd from the same series, and The Peasant Wedding by the same artist.


All three paintings can be found in the Picture Gallery of the Museum, on floor 1, Room X, in the section dedicated to Dutch, Flemish and German painters.


To visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum you will need a ticket: a full price ticket costs 21€, a reduced one 18€ (valid for students), free entry for kids under 19, and there are some other options in case you have specific cards or opt for a combined ticket.


 The Museum is normally closed on Mondays, open Tue-Sun from 10AM to 6PM, and on Thursdays from 10AM to 9PM. From June to August, it is open every day (Mon 10AM - 6PM).


You can find these and other pieces of information here, on the official website of the Museum, where you can also purchase your tickets.




 



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