An influential teacher during Brueghel’s apprenticeship in Antwerp and his future father-in-law, Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550) served as painters’ guild master and court artist to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the great Renaissance economic crossroads of Brussels and Antwerp. Van Aelst also designed immense stained glass windows and exquisite tapestries to adorn the chilly, plastered walls of some of Europe’s most prominent cathedrals and palaces. Coecke’s treasured allegorical fabrics are alive with expressive figures and exotic classical scenes that include the Vertumnus and Pomona series based on Ovid’s tale in The Metamorphosis of how the Roman god of seasons’ deceived Pomona, goddess of abundance. Infused with hope from more bountiful harvests and rising populations, Renaissance artists and authors used the harvest theme both as allegorical of divine blessing and offering commoners the prospect of a reasonably fulfilled life on earth. Europe’s centers of tapestry production in Brussels and Antwerp flourished throughout the sixteenth century, and as princely and papal commissions increased other workshops were established in Fontainbleau, France, and in Florence and Mantua, Italy.

Van Aelst introduced Brueghel to many of the era’s most notable artists and travelers. Following his master’s death in 1550 the young artist completed his apprenticeship in the Antwerp workshop of Hieronymus Cock (1518-1570), one of Europe’s most distinguished engravers and publishers who had sought full advantage of the newly introduced printing press. Among Cock’s other workers was Flemish engraver Phillips Galle (1537-1612) who became one of the period’s most prolific publishers in the late sixteenth century. Galle had traveled widely in Europe and likely influenced Brueghel’s classical style with descriptions of works by early Renaissance Italian masters. Galle published a stunning series of engraved allegorical months in at least three editions depicting summer harvest labors and other agrarian endeavors.

Jan van de Velde II, August, from the Twelve Month Series (c. 1616)
Copperplate engraving on paper, 11 ¾ x 17 ¼ inches
Franklin County Museum Collection

Brueghel himself toured France and Italy in 1551 and extensively sketched rural landscapes. His emphasis on first-hand observations of actual places and peasant labor influenced a generation of Flemish artists including Lucas van Valckenborch (c. 1535-1597), Pieter van der Borcht (1545-1608), and Joos de Momper (1564-1635). Their works also commonly employed broad spatial construction featuring hillsides and ledges to lend grand recessive perspectives to canvases like van Valckenborch’s Landscape in Summer (1584). The painting shows harvesters wielding substantial scythes while others enjoy a midday meal in the presence of a well-dressed nobleman, probably the landowner, with a verdant valley that melts into the distant horizon. De Momper’s Summer (c. 1600) is notable for the detailed and colorful depiction of cutting, binding, and carting chores with background of gleaming sun and church steeple suggesting the sacred nature of rural labors.

Joos de Momper, Summer (c. 1600)
Oil on wood, 28 ½ x 20 ¼ inches
National Gallery, Oslo