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Sunday, September 24, 2023

The "Key" to an Old Master Painting

Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8 Antwerp), The Flemish Proverbs, ca. 1610–1618. Oil on copper, 19-1/4 x 26-1/8 inches. Courtesy, Johnny Van Haeften, Ltd.
Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8 Antwerp), The Flemish Proverbs, ca. 1610–1618.
Oil on copper, 19-1/4 x 26-1/8 inches. Courtesy, Johnny Van Haeften, Ltd.

The “Key” to an Old Master Painting: Pieter Brueghel’s Flemish Proverbs
A Flemish walled town is the setting for a scene populated with people all busily engaged in a variety of seemingly absurd and unrelated activities. The meaning of each little episode only becomes clear when one realizes that the artist has used the actions of ordinary folk to give pictorial expression, often in very literal terms, to popular period sayings or proverbs.

Proverbs and sayings have been collected in compendia since time immemorial, but interest in them reached a new peak in the sixteenth century. Broadly speaking, the proverbs in this image address the theme of the sins and follies of mankind. Brueghel offers an image of the peasant that is at once comical and brutally caricatured, but also heroically monumental.

The career of Pieter Breughel the Younger was built largely on the reputation of his famous father, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Although no more than four or five years old in 1569 when the elder Brueghel died, the son was nonetheless able to develop a detailed knowledge of his father’s oeuvre. Demand for his father’s works fueled interest in Pieter the Younger’s copies and adaptations. The present painting is derived from a composition by his father dated 1559 (Gemäldegalerie in Berlin). The original painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder was executed before Pieter the Younger was even born and almost forty years before the latter produced his earliest surviving dated copy. Ten signed versions of the son’s The Flemish Proverbs are known: four large versions on panel, four on canvas, and two smaller variants on copper; none are identical.

Surprisingly few details survive regarding the life of Pieter Breughel the Younger. Since his father died before his birth, the Younger may have received his first training from his maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, who was a painter and had been married to Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Pieter the Younger became a master in the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1584–1585 and trained at least nine pupils. In 1588, he married Elizabeth Goddelet and their eldest son, Pieter III, also became a painter. Pieter the Younger enjoyed a long and productive career that lasted more than half a century. He died in Antwerp in 1637 or 1638.

Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8 Antwerp), The Flemish Proverbs, ca. 1610–1618. Oil on copper, 19-1/4 x 26-1/8 inches. Courtesy, Johnny Van Haeften, Ltd.
Key to The Flemish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel II

1. She tightly ties up the devil on top of a cushion (she is a formidable woman, she is a shrew).

2. He is a pillar licker (he is a hypocrite).

3. She carries fire in one hand and water in the other. (She is false, or even: she blows hot and cold).

4. This time it’s the sow that pulls out the stopper. (Everything is going badly here, everyone does exactly as they want).

5. He grills the herring to get the spawn. (he is someone who squanders).

6. This time his herring won’t cook (this time he is unsuccessful).

7. He has a cake on his head. (He is unlucky).

8. To fall between two stools.

9. a) To find the dog in the cooking-pot (to arrive too late, to go dinnerless); b) In an open pot or yawning hole, the dog sticks its nose everywhere (everyone is interested in a badly kept secret).

10. By the sign of the scissors. (hair cut here).

11. To always gnaw on the same bone. (To always set one’s heart on the same thing).

12. a) A hen feeler (a lecher); b) Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.

13. He puts a bell on a cat (he launches into a risky business).

14. To bangs one’s head against a brick wall (despite one’s best efforts one makes no progress).

15. Are you a soldier or a peasant?

16. One shears sheep, the other shears pigs. (One gets all the profit, the other none).

17. Patient as a sheep.

18. One weaves what the other spins. (One supplies the materials, the other works with them).

19. Beware the black dog doesn’t interfere (beware that nothing happens to thwart your plans).

20. He carries a full basket of daylight (He devotes himself to unnecessary labour).

21. He lights a candle for the devil. (He flatters anyone for favour, he wants to be everyone’s friend).

22. He makes his confession to the devil. (He confides in someone who is not worthy).

23. He who whispers in one’s ear. (Slanderer or gossip monger).

24. The Stork invited the Fox. (The cheater is fooled — refers to a fable by Aesop).

25. The spit must be watered. (One must take care of everything if one wants to succeed).

26. One must put the roast on the spit while the fire burns. (One must strike while the iron is hot).

27. To be (sitting) on live coals (To be impatient).

28. Two dogs with one bone rarely get on (Two people are rarely of the same opinion on the same matter).

29. The pig is stuck in the belly. (It is an irrevocable deed).

30. To scatter roses before swine (Give something beautiful to someone who cannot appreciate it).

31. She puts the blue cloak over her husband’s shoulders. (She pulls the wool over his eyes—i.e. deceives him).

32. It goes like pincers on a pig. (It is incongruous).

33. Fill up the well after the calf has drowned (Give advice when it is too late, to shut the stable door when the horse has bolted).

34. One must crawl if one wants to make it through the world. (You must know how to be servile if you want to make it in society).

35. He turns the world on his thumb (he has everyone twisted round his finger).

36. Attach a flaxen beard to the Lord (to be a hypocrite).

37. They are holding on at full stretch (Each wants to overpower the other).

38. To put a spoke in the wheel (to create problems).

39. He who upset his porridge cannot get it all back. (It is no use crying over spilt milk).

40. He is looking for the axe. (He is lazy).

41. He who searches, finds.

42. He finds it difficult to grab two loaves at the same time. (He is having trouble making ends meet).

43. He wants to open wider than an oven (he attempts the impossible, he tires himself pointlessly).

44. He is sitting in his own light. (He puts himself in the shade. He wrongs himself).

45. One doesn’t search for another in the oven if one hasn’t been in there oneself. (It takes one to know one).

46. She takes the chicken egg and leaves the goose egg. (She puts the prey out of harms way).

47. To fall through the basket. (To fail or even: to entangle oneself in lies or boasts and not know how to get out of them).

48. He is suspended between heaven and earth.

49. To cut belts from someone else’s leather. (To be generous with someone else’s wealth).

50. He grabs the eel by the tail. (He will certainly not succeed in his endeavour).

51. To swim against the tide.

52. To throw the habit in the nettles. (To give up one’s profession or quit religious life).

53. A cracked wall is soon in ruins (Evil, once present quickly wreaks havoc).

54. To be unable to bear the sun shining on the water. (To be jealous of another’s happiness).

55. He throws his money into the water. (He throws his money down the drain).

56. They both shit through the same hole. (They get on famously well).

57. It’s like putting a lavatory above a pit. (It is obvious).

58. The big fishes eat the little fishes. (The strong dominate the weak).

59. He fishes behind the nets. (He arrived too late).

60. He wipes his backside on the prison door. (He is reckless).

61. He falls from the (back of the) bull onto the ass. (From the frying pan into the fire).

62. He plays atop the pillory. (He takes over something for an inappropriate use).

63. Two heads (or two fools) under the same cap. (These two people always agree).

64. Shave the fool without soap. (Profit from the weaknesses of others).

65. He has got toothache behind the ears. (He is crafty).

66. a)He pisses at the moon. (To attempt the impossible); b) He pissed against the moon (he came off badly).

67. By the sign of the chamber pot (everything is askew there).

68. Fools draw the card (simpletons have their arms full, luck smiles on the foolish)

69. To shit on the whole world. (To make fun of everything).

70. At the sign of the world-turned-upside-down (everything is turned on its head — it is not as it should be).

71. They hold onto each other by their noses (they mutually deceive each other).

72. He looks through his fingers. (He takes it easy, he is indulgent).

73. To be in his shoes (to wait in vain).

74. Bring out the broom. (live it up while the master’s away).

75. They jumped under the broom (they are living as common-law husband and wife).

76. The rooftops are covered with tarts. (There is an abundance of everything)

77. a) To shoot one arrow straight after the other (to drop one hint after the other); b) Don’t shoot all your arrows at once (don’t exhaust all your supplies at once, don’t say everything at once).

78. To keep an egg in the nest. (To keep a nest egg, put something away for a rainy day).

79. When the gate is open, the pigs run through the corn (when no one keeps watch everything goes askew).

80. He stretches out his coat the way the wind blows. (He blows with the wind, he changes sides).

81. He winnows feathers in the breeze. (He does pointless or foolish work).

82. Less corn, more pork (you cannot have everything at once).

83. To kill two flies in one swat. (To kill two birds with one stone).

84. When the house burns, he warms himself by the fire. (It doesn’t matter to him that his house burns, as long as he can warm himself in the fire).

85. A good soldier is not afraid of fire.

86. There is no smoke without fire

87. Her behind has caught fire (She is in a hurry).

88. When the blind leads the blind, all fall into the ditch. (The blind leading the blind).

89. Horse manure is scarcely figs. (One must not believe in nonsense).

90. He watches dancing bears. (He is hungry).

91. For this reason and that, the geese go barefoot.

92. Who knows why geese go barefoot? (There is a reason for everything).

93. He shits on the gallows. (He mocks Justice).

94. To set sail with the devil. (To get involved with the wrong crowd).

95. The journey is not over until you see the church belfry. (It is not as easy as it seems).

Image and text courtesy Johnny Van Haeften, Ltd., London, England. For more information on this painting and the proverbs, visit