Master of the Mountain Landscapes

/There are some issues with the images in this post (blurry appearance)- we are working to solve it/

There many mysteries in the history of art and solving them is a serious business. We can figure out some of them with modern technologies like X-ray or MRI, but others are to stay with us forever. And sometimes, we even don´t know there is a mystery until someone brings it to the daylight. Our story is full of twists, featuring mystery and starring one of the brightest stars of renaissance art – Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Large Landscapes

Fig. 1 Alpine Landscape with a Deep Valley from the series The Large Landscapes. Drawn by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and etched by van Doetecum brothers. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For full size click here.


Printing the New World

Art prints were a huge thing in the renaissance era. There was no photography to share the experiences and printmakers had mastered the copper etching and copper engraving technique, resulting in precise and beautiful prints – nothing like clumsy old woodcuts. Fine black printing lines were forming mostly religious motives, but with a new ease and symbolism. The demand was enormous – prints wasn´t nearly as expensive as drawings and provided the visual experience for the almost totally illiterate community. Obviously, printing had become the flourishing business. The publishers owned large workshops and paid the etchers and engravers good money to work for them. But the most important was the name of print designer – the more famous artist equals more sold prints.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder inscription

Fig. 2 Inscription with names of Pieter Bruegel as designer and Hieronymus Cock as publisher. Pieter van Heyden. Avarice (detail).Source.

Hieronymus Cock published the collection of twelve very fine and detailed prints in 1555 or 1556, made by brothers Johannes and Lucas van Doetecum. Their work was famous for innovative technique – special treatment, usage of unusual tools and reinvented etching process resulted in prints that closely resemble copper engraving, but only a fraction of both time and effort was needed. [1] This new approach allows them to spend more time working on the printing plate, hence to achieve more detailed artwork (see Fig. 2). And they sure needed some more time to work on details, because the design for the Cock`s collection was made by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who is famous for his incredibly detailed drawings and paintings. [2] The collection is called The Large Landscapes because of the size of prints – every printing plate is ca. 30 x 45 cm. The landscape views in prints are also large, ranging from dramatic alpine mountains to more peaceful views of the Lower land`s forests. Every print has its own name and motive – some of them are based on religious themes as Saint Jarome in the Wilderness or The Penitent Magdalene, others depicts the rustic life as The Crafty Birdcatcher, Belgian Wagon or Rustic Solicitude, and the last group of prints is devoted to the landscape views as in View of Tiber or Alpine Landscape with a Deep Valley (for complete list of prints see the Table 1. at the end of text).

The Large Landscapes Detail

Fig. 3 Detail of Euntes in Emaus from The Large Landscapes. The original size of pictured area is about 7 x 5 cm. The level of details achieved by the etchers is enormous. Source.

There is an ongoing debate whether Bruegel had designed all the prints. Some of scholars find the inconsistency of style in the series disturbing and think that someone else had to make designs for at least few of the prints. In the Rest on the Flight to Egypt and The Rustic Market viewer could find some unsettling details – people, trees and the character of landscape differ from the others print. Moreover, the inscription with Bruegel’s name were added to the plates only after the plates were finished and few copies were printed. [3] We know that both of the Doetecum brothers were skilful artists and some authors think that they have designed the prints to complete the series of twelve. Others think that Hieronymus Cock himself had contributed his own designs to the series. For untrained viewer the stylistic variations are almost invisible and whoever had drawn these two design made a good job. However, this is not the mystery we are to talk about today.

The Large Landscapes

Fig. 4 Trees of The Large Landscapes: A. Alpine Landscape with a Deep Valley, B. Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, C. Flight into Egypt, D. Rustic Market. First two trees are from prints designed by Bruegel, second two are from disputed plates. All artworks are stored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For full-size of this image click here.


The Large Drawings

Master of the Mountain Landscapes

Fig. 5 One of the alpine landscapes drawings (enhanced*). The Courtauld Institute of Art. Full size here.

When it comes to the story behind The Large Landscapes, we know next to nothing and it`s no wonder – more than 450 years have passed since prints were made. There are no period writings about the series and only two of the preparation drawing have survived to these days. [4] We know that Bruegel had travelled to Italy through the Alps and that the journey had a very important impact on him and his artistic style. It was said that he had swallowed all the mountains and cliffs, and, upon coming home, he had spit them forth upon his canvas and panels. [5] And in fact, there are few drawings in the museums and private collections all around the word, depicting Alpine landscapes, whose are considered to be sketches Bruegel had made in the Alps, during his stay un Italy of shortly after he had returned home. The drawings show some features seen in the final prints and are dated back to the 16th century, however none of them is signed. Some wears an inscription with Bruegel`s name, but all writings were added long after the drawings were finished. Everything just looks like Pieter Bruegel did draw those drawings, and they highly valued because of it. They represent his thoughts of nature in very intimate way and present him as mature, thinking artist with sensibility for composition and detail, still they feel more spontaneous than his paintings. They are almost like pages from his diary, letting us to explore his mind and worldview.

Bruegel preparational drawing

Fig. 6 Print and preparation drawing, note that print and drawing are reversed. A. Landscape with Pilgrims at Emmaus from The Large Landscapes, Metropolitan Museum of Art, B. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Landscape with Pilgrims (enhanced),
one of two surviving preparation drawings for the series. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen. For full-size of this image click here.


…and Large Troubles

But in fact, there are some flaws in this idyllic view. First of all, many motives in drawings are oriented to the same direction as in prints. It`s common that sketches are mirror images of a final print. It looks like at least some of the drawings are made after the prints, but it is not a strong evidence – Bruegel might do it intentionally. Perhaps he made a sketch with some features he likes, and he decided to use it for a preparation drawing for a print. So while making the preparation drawing he might mirror it just to achieve right orientation in the final print. It doesn`t sound convincing but who knows?

Master of the Mountain Landscapes

Fig. 7 One of the features shared by print and drawing. Note that motive in the print is oriented the same direction as in the drawing. A. The Crafty Bird-Catcher from The Large Landscapes, Metropolitan Museum of Art, B. Landscape with Two Mules, Courtauld Institute of Art. For the full size of this image click here.

Some of the Alpine drawings were taken away from Bruegel in the past for various reasons, mostly because of the inconsistency of style, scholars sometimes mention the appearance of trees, foliage and figures. [6] But the evidence wasn`t strong enough to reconsider the authorship of the whole series.

Master of the Mountain Landscapes

Fig. 8 Compare the appearance of the trees` leaves. A. One of the Alpine Landscapes – Mountain Landscape with a River, Village, and Castle, The Morgan Library & Museum, B. Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Landscape with the Penitence of Saint Jerome, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. For full-size of this image click here.

Finally, in 1991 Hans Mielke has written a six-page article for the Yearbook of Berlin Museums [7], in which he took away all these alpine drawings from Bruegel. In his expertise, he had found a watermark with lily and initials WR on two of these drawings, namely on Broad Mountain Range and Landscape with a Village, River and Castle.The second one is a large and highly finished drawing showing an epic landscape which was considered the most accomplished of a group of mountain landscapes thought to have been executed by him (Bruegel) after a sojourn through the Alps. [8] The watermark was a sign of a paper mill and we know that paper with this watermark first appeared in 1585 or 1588. That is sixteen, respectively twenty years after Bruegel`s death and more than 30 years after The Large Landscapes were printed. It has become obvious that Bruegel is not the author of these two drawings and after further investigation, the whole set of about twenty alpine drawings was taken away from him.

Hans Mielke

Fig. 9 Drawing of the watermark with Lilly and WR monogram by Hans Mielke. Source.

That was quite shocking because we based our image of whole Bruegel`s drawing style on those drawings. The deattributed works all have certain statuesque monumentality and a reserved character that now seem atypical for Bruegel as well as unusual for drawings produced in the mid-sixteenth century. They also share sharp, thin and controlled pen work that describes the contours of mountains and parallel hatching, which differ from relatively thick, minutely wavering lines characteristic of Bruegel`s accepted drawings. [9] After deattribution, the whole conception of Bruegel drawing style has changed.

Master of the Mountain Landscapes

Fig. 10 Mountain Landscape with a River, Village and Castle (enhanced). The Morgan Library & Museum. Source.


Master of the Mountain Landscapes

Now, the question is, who drew it. Mielke has proposed that Roeland Savery or his brother Jacob are authors behind the Alpine landscapes. He later changed his mind a little bit – he stays in favour the Savery brothers but says that we cannot be sure about it and further research is needed to attribute drawings to anyone. [10] And most of the art historians agree on that. That`s why the drawings are listed as made by Master of the Mountain Landscape. He was active in the second half of 16th or at the beginning of 17th century somewhere in the Lower Lands and was a skilled drawer. It is quite unlike that there aren`t other drawings or paintings made by him. It is also possible that drawings were made by young learning artist, who was given Bruegel`s prints and his task was to reproduce them.

Jacob Savery

Fig. 11 Jacob Savery. Landscape with a castle (enhanced). Source.

Since we cannot travel in time it would be long and hard work to find out who is the author of this iconic set of landscapes. But on the second hand, maybe the authorship is just overvalued concept we tend to because of modern branding. There`s a name tag on everything. We love brands even in art and Da Vinci is the better brand than El Greco – everyone knows it. Bruegel is a better tag than Anonymous artist active in the second half of the 16th century. Master of Mountain Landscapes gives us an opportunity to view artwork as it is – without tags, names and prejudices. Just a monumental landscape. We are not suggesting that we should put down all the name tags in galleries, but rather rethink the value we give to the artist`s name.

Master of the Mountain Landscapes

Fig. 12 Master of the Mountain Landscapes. Mountain Landscape with a Cross. Source.

As a tribute to this artist, we decided to make a reproduction of one of his drawings. Our first though was to make probably most iconic Landscape with a River, Village, and Castle, but after a short reflection, we made a different drawing, Landscape with an Artist Sketching. Master of Mountain Landscaped depicts here an unknown artist who share his passion for the landscape drawing. There is a strong connection between the Master and this tiny figure – both are anonymous landscape artists, lost in the stunning natural environment.

Master of the Mountain Landscapes

Fig. 13 Master of the Mountain Landscapes. Landscape with an Artist Sketching. Courtauld Institute of Art.


Art After

Fig. 14 Art After`s recreation of drawing. Fill-size here.


Table 1. List of prints from The Large Landscapes


Magdalena Poenitens / The Penitent Magdalene



S. Hieronymus in Deserto / St. Jerome in the Wilderness



Large Alpine Landscape



Alpine Landscape with a Deep Valley



Milites requiescentes / Soldiers at Rest



Insidiosus auceps / The Crafty Bird-Catcher



Fuga deiparae in Aegyptum / Flight into Egypt



Solicitudo rustica / Rustic Solicitude



Prospectus Tyburtinus / View of the Tiber (Tivoli)



Plaustrum Belgicum / The Belgian Wagon



Euntes in Emaus / Landscape with Pilgrims at Emmaus



(Nundinae Rusticorum) Rustic Market


We hope you enjoy our writing so far; we are doing our best to improve. We have a lot of plans in the near future, but we are both working full-time as teachers, so getting the time for Art After is sometimes a serious struggle. Nevertheless, there`s a lot ahead of us – new drawings, new blog – this time hopefully about symbolics in work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder or long planned recipe for bistre ink.

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*Some of the images in this post are marked as enhanced – it means that they are brightened and their contrast was raised in order to make them easier to perceive. A computer screen displays the old drawings in the way that differs from the direct visual experience. We try to eliminate this by enhancing images.


[2] This Google Art Project view allows you to see the painting The Babel Tower by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in extremely large resolution. Check all the details in the painting.

[3] Orenstein, N.: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 133.

[4]     Alpine Landscape in the Louvre, Paris:

The Way to Emmaus in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp:

[5] Karel von Mander: Pieter Bruegel of Bruegel. Available here:

[6] Orenstein, N.: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 270.

[7] (in german, require registration)


[9] Orenstein, N.: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 266.


Posted in Art History.

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