For over a decade, Mark Meadow has explored how the humanist study of rhetoric informed the early Netherlandish “period eye.” His first publication on this topic, in 1992, investigated the structure of knowledge in Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs; his most recent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric – returns to and expands upon this earlier work. The title is both straightforwardly descriptive and deceptively modest. Meadow does limit his interpretive field to a single painting. Yet his book offers far broader insight into habits of mind inculcated in urban elites by a system of public education based in classical rhetoric, and into the ways these inflected Netherlandish visual culture. In the process, he reveals intellectual sophistication behind images that may, at first, appear naive. He argues persuasively that Netherlandish Proverbs served as a multivalent conversation piece for an educated audience, rather than simply as a moralizing sermon on human failing.
Meadow first analyzes Bruegel’s formal strategy in ordering the vast body of information in the painting. He identifies thematic clusters of proverbs marked by architectural settings, axial arrangements, and parallel gestures. For example, Bruegel collects adages relating to hunger in the image’s hovel, while he locates those concerning wastefulness near its castle (38). One vivid horizontal register includes four figures shitting in three separate proverbs, as well as no fewer than six sets of exposed buttocks, punctuated by a portly man “pissing at the moon” (42-46). The echoing body positions of a burgher who “casts roses before swine” and of a nobleman who “spins the world on his thumb” underscore these sayings’ similarities and differences (44-45). Meadow wisely attempts neither an exhaustive catalogue of the proverbs themselves nor of the artist’s techniques for interrelating them. Rather he points out how spatial intersections among Bruegel’s associative skeins allowed for myriad visual (and conversational) routes through the painting.
Meadow next explores how Bruegel’s image relates to three sixteenth-century humanist preoccupations: obsession with proverbs, interest in collecting, and the study of formal rhetoric. He provides an overview of Netherlandish proverb literature from Erasmus’ Latin Adagia of 1500 through Symon Andriessoon’s mid-century compendium of Dutchspreckwoorden, thereby tracking the spread of humanist interest in adages from Latin and Greek into the vernacular. Significantly, he correlates this movement with increased opportunity for social advancement among individuals (such as Andriessoon and, implicitly, many in Bruegel’s audience) whose education did not extend to classical languages. Meadow also associates proverb collecting with the learned passion for Wunderkammern – those assemblages of diverse natural and man-made artifacts which operated as microcosms of the physical world and human accomplishment. He further traces the thematic clusters in Bruegel’s painting to Erasmus’ and Agricola’s ‘notebook systems’ of knowledge, themselves derived from the spatial loci of Classical rhetoric. In his final chapters, Meadow asks how Bruegel’s audiences would have understood the self-consciously derivative nature of this and other of his paintings, with their references to and elaborations upon imagery by Hieronymus Bosch, Joachim Patinir, and Frans Hogenberg. He finds his answer in the writings of the artist’s contemporaries – Guicciardini, Lampsonius, Ortelius – who describe Bruegel’s work in the classicizing critical vocabulary of imitatio and aemulatio: the process of gaining and displaying knowledge of an earlier master’s works, and the competitive effort to surpass them.
Meadow offers compelling evidence that humanist metacritical discourse played an important role in both the production and reception of Netherlandish Proverbs. His study makes available new rhetorical tools for the interpretation of sixteenth-century imagery, and broadens our understanding of how period mentalities shaped viewing practices. Nevertheless, I find Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs not quite satisfying, for Meadow stops short of reintegrating his rhetorical discoveries into a balanced reading of the painting. To be fair, this was never his goal. Meadow states explicitly that his concern is “with the synchronic intellectual context of Bruegel’s painting and not the diachronic pictorial context” (159, n. 27). But by maintaining this narrow focus, he leaves behind a curiously dematerialized and Italianized Netherlandish Proverbs. In the end, the artwork seems more a rational construct than a vivid object offering sensual delight and psychological insight; more a demonstration piece of imported erudition than a celebration (if ironic) of local artistry, native wisdom, and human foible. Surely its intellectual attractions worked in tandem, and in tension, with more homespun pleasures: figuring out which proverb was which, enjoying the picture’s social universe, recognizing in it one’s own and neighbors’ weaknesses.
Among Meadow’ s most insightful observations is that one function of Netherlandish Proverbs was epistemological – to illuminate current processes of knowledge production (18). Yet his account describes an uncharacteristically earnest Bruegel who pursues this particular task without irony. I wish that Meadow had considered Bruegel’s application of classicizing form to nativist subject matter as a means of critiquing, as well as flattering, intellectual pretension. I ask a lot of a slender volume that makes no claim to be comprehensive, especially since Meadow’s writings have so enriched our discipline’s (and my own) understanding of the imagery of Bruegel, Aertsen, and others. I might put it best by saying that I still await Meadow’s three-dimensional synthesis of his rhetorical discoveries with the visual, social and humanely comic aspects of Bruegel’s oeuvre.
Charlotte M. Houghton,
Pennsylvania State University