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Bruegel, Hunters in the Snow (Winter)

Pieter Bruegel's painting, "The Return of the Hunters" or "Hunters in the Snow," showcases winter activities in a Renaissance landscape. The artwork, part of a six-panel series, represents different times of year. Bruegel's painting captures the daily routines of people, highlighting both the struggles and playfulness of winter. The landscape is a composite, inspired by the artist's travels to Italy and the Alps. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565, oil on wood, 118 x 161 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Female: Just looking at this painting makes me feel cold. Male: We're looking at Pieter Bruegel's The Return of the Hunters or Hunters in the Snow. It's this wonderful panel painting from the Renaissance, from Flanders, made for a merchant in Antwerp that had asked Bruegel to make six panel paintings, which were study of the labors of the months. This is an idea that goes back to manuscript illumination, back to the Medieval Period. This is perhaps the very first time in the history of painting where that idea has been brought to this larger scale. Female: Each one of these paintings represents a different time of year. We're obviously looking at winter here. We see some hunters returning from their hunt with their dogs, but they haven't got very much to show for their day out hunting. Male: If you look closely, you can see a rabbit just hanging off the back of one of the hunters, but it is a pretty meager catch. It does give us a sense of the stresses of winter. Female: You can see the footprints that they're leaving in the snow. There's this real sense of trudging through this deep snowy landscape. Male: In the foreground, there is that sense of melancholy as well. Their backs are turned to us. The pack of dogs that follow, their heads are down. There's a sense of them being tired and unsuccessful. But as our eye moves down the hill, and it moves down pretty fast, there's almost no middle ground, all of a sudden we're down in this icy pond. Then we see a different side of winter. We see playfulness. In fact, this painting is full of the activities of winter. Female: We're not just looking at a lovely landscape, but a landscape that is given meaning by the activities of the people that inhabit it, by their daily routines. Male: In fact, that idea is an ancient one, and comes from Virgil, Bruegel's patron may well have been thinking about Virgil when he commissioned this series, this notion of painting a landscape that is given meaning by the labors of the people within it. Although the image seems as if it is a moment in time, in fact the painting is carefully composed. Our eye follows the hunters down the hill, which is given a wonderful visual rhythm by those trees, and then my eye wants to ride down to that frozen pond where we see a woman pulling somebody else on a little sleigh. Then I want to go by those black crows and under those arches. There's that lovely woman just above who's carrying, perhaps, some firewood. Then beyond that we see lots of play taking place. Female: We do. We see people pulling each other on the ice, children playing and chasing each other, a man about to hit a ball with a stick on the ice, playing kind of ice hockey for the 16th century. Male: Then, perhaps, actually someone who's fallen, whose hat has fallen off. Female: This is really typical of Netherlandish painting, this idea of giving us a lot of visual information, a lot of things to look at, a small little narrative so that we can patiently discover more and more. Male: Think about the time that this is made. This is the Renaissance. In Italy, there's an attempt at this moment to perfect, to isolate, the most ideal moment. It's so different from Northern painting which is concerned with these almost literary narratives. Female: And the every day, the mundane. Male: It is still interested in finding meaning that comes from the multiplicity of human activities no matter how prosaic. Our eye also can soar through the painting. Female: Much like the birds that we see. Male: That's exactly what I was thinking. We have the birds who soar through the space, even into the very distant hills that are a reminder that Bruegel had actually made his way from northern Europe across the Alps to Italy. But unlike some of the other northerners who made that trip, he doesn't come back with the latest traditions of the Italian Renaissance painters. Instead, he seems to be caught in the landscape. Look at that beautiful Alpine vista that we have in the upper right. There's nothing like that in the Netherlands. There's nothing like that in Flanders. Female: Right. When Bruegel made his trip down to Italy, what he seems to have most been impressed with were the Alps. This is a good reminder that what we're looking at is not an actual view, for example, that Bruegel saw out his window, but a composed, partially imagined, composite landscape, activated by these human figures. Male: The landscape feels frozen and harsh, but it's warmed by its human inhabitants. (jazzy music)