(circa 1525-1569) Dutch painter, much influenced in his early work by Hieronymus Bosch, though his later paintings were increasingly grounded in landscape and social observation. The grotesqueries depicted in this late work almost always derive from exaggerations of what PB actually observed; "The Parable of the Blind" (1568), for instance, though giving a sense that we are witnessing a supernatural Dance of Death, contains nothing which could not have been assembled from life. This is not true of earlier work, of which paintings of fantasy interest include "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (circa 1555), "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent" (1559), "The Triumph of Death" (circa 1562), which presents a full-blown Dance of Death, "The Fall of the Rebel Angels" (circa 1562), "'Dulle Griet' (Mad Meg)" (1562), the last of PB's work in which relatively free-floating fantastic Symbols of human states (like Gluttony and Sin) are to be found, and "The Tower of Babel" (1566), the most famous single representation of Babel.
It is perhaps marginally safer to try to understand PB in modern terms than to attempt the same exercise for Bosch; the half-century or so between the two artists saw profound changes in consciousness and in the use of religious material. Bosch was an allegorist, whose fecundity of image illuminated a way of understanding the sense of the world and the spirit that we can no longer easily apprehend. PB used some of the same language but with a looseness that makes him seem much more contemporary. Bosch is a foreign country, and haunts the dreams of modern fantasists with images he may not himself have found haunting; when PB haunts us with images, we tend to feel that he, too, was haunted.
PB is often referred to as "the Elder" to distinguish him from his son, Pieter Bruegel II (circa 1564-1638). [JC]