Decoding £6.3m Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Painting Hidden with Proverbs

In Old Masters Evening Sale at Christie’s London, there was a fasincating painting by Pieter Brueghel, the Younger (1564/5-1637/8). Estimated at £3.5m-5.5m, the painting The Netherlandish Proverbs sold for £6.3m with premium included. There are secret messages underlying the depiction of the lives of Netherlandish people. In fact, it is figurative representation of over one hundred proverbs.

Pieter Brueghel, the Younger. Netherlandish Proverbs

Pieter Brueghel, the Elder. Netherlandish Proverbs

Netherlandish Proverbs was created by Bruegel the Elder five years before his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger was born. It was one of the Elder’s earliest works and as a composition incorporating small isolated performances of proverbs across a large theatrical space it had no direct precedent. Pieter Bruegel the Elder injected sixteenth century proverb usage with the power of Medieval theological symbolism in his Netherlandish Proverbs. 

Bruegel the Younger

Close-up of Netherlandish Proverbs: Bruegel the Younger (left) and Bruegel the Elder (right)

Pieter Brueghel the Younger painted repetitions of his father’s most famous pictures, including the present Netherlandish Proverbs. Pieter Brueghel the Younger lived into his seventies and produced almost 1,000 known paintings in total.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger based this animated scene, teeming with figures, on an original composition by his father. Although the copies typically follow the Elder’s original with astonishing precision, none are absolutely identical to the prototype, with many showing both minor and in some instances significant differences, additions and omissions. The painting depicts more than 100 Netherlandish proverbs. Here we have extracted parts of proverbs included.

1. She bound the devil to a cushion| She’s a real shrew
2. He is a column biter|He’s a false friend/ a religious hypocrite
3. She carries fire in one hand and water in the other|To be two-faced and stir up trouble
4. Here, it’s the sow that opens the trap|Everything is going to the dogs/negligence leads to disaster
5. To bang one's head against a brick wall|To try to achieve the impossible
6. One foot shod, the other bare|Balance is paramount

7. There is more in it than an empty herring|There is more to it than meets the eye
8. The herring hangs by its own gills|You must accept responsibility for your own actions
9. To get the lid on the head|To end up taking responsibility
10. To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe|To do too much to achieve a little
11. The herring does not fry here|It’s not going according to plan
12. What can smoke do to iron?|There is no point in trying to change the unchangeable
13. To sit between two stools in the ashes|To be indecisive
14. To find the dog in the pot|To hesitate is to lose

15. The world is turned upside down|Everything is the opposite of what it should be
16. To crap on the world|To despite everything
17. Fools get the best cards|Luck smiles upon the mad
18. To lead each other by the nose|To fool each other
19. To look through one’s fingers|To turn a blind eye
20. To enter in one’s clogs|To wait in vain

21. To marry under the broom|To live together without marrying/ it’s convenient to flirt under the same roof
22. To stick out the broom|To have fun while the master is away
23. To have the roof tiled with tarts|Wealthy

24. To use up all your arrows/ to shoot your bolt|To use up your last chance
25. To keep an egg in the nest|Always have something in reserve
26. When the gate is open, the pigs run through the wheat|When the cat is away the mice will play
27. When the corn decreases the pig increases|One gains then another must lose

28. They shave the fool’s beard without any soap|To take advantage of the weaknesses of others
29. Thy are two fools in the same cap|They always agree
30. He plays atop the pillory|He takes over something for an inappropriate use)
31. He fishes behind the nets|He arrived too late
32. Big fishes eat the little fishes|The strong dominate the weak
33. To throw one’s money into the water|To waste one’s money
34. They both crap through the same hole|They are inseparable comrades
35. Putting a lavatory above a pit|It’s obvious
36. He falls from the bull onto the ass| To fall on hard times
37. He wipes his backside on the prison door|He mocks something
38. To kill two flies with one stroke|To kill two birds with one stone
39. To gaze at the stork|To waste one’s time
40. To hang one’s cloak according to the wind|To adapt one’s viewpoint to the current opinion
41. To toss feathers in the wind|To wor fruitlessly
42. To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze|To take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others
43 A good soldier doesn’t fear fire|Brave man fears nothing
44. There is no smoke without fire|Things happen for reason

45. She has fire in her behind|In trouble
46. When the blind lead the blind, all fall into the ditch|A person who knows nothing is getting advice and help from another person who knows almost nothing
47. The journey is not yet finished when you see the church and its steeple|It’s not as easy as it seems
48. To set sail with the devil|To get involved with the wrong crowd
49. It’s easy to sail before the wind|If conditions are favourable it is not difficult to achieve one’s goal
50. To crap on the gallows|To mock Justice
51.  Who knows why geese go barefoot|There is a reason for everything, though it may not be obvious
52. If I am not meant to be their keeper, I will let geese be geese|Do not interfere in matters that are not your concern
53. Horse manure is not figs|Do not be fooled by appearances
54. He watches dancing bears|He is starving
55. Wild bears prefer each other’s company|Peers get along better with each other than with outsiders

Pieter Brueghel, the Younger (1564-1637). The Netherlandish Proverbs

Lot no.: 7
Size: 121.3 x 166.7cm

  • Jonkheer Adriaan Johan Hugo Repelaer van Spijkenisse (1845-1884), Brussels, and by inheritance to his brother,
  • Jonkheer Johan Adriaan Paulus Repelaer van Spijkenisse (d. 1913), Haarlem, and by descent to,
  • Jonkheer O.S. Repelaer van Spijkenisse; Christie’s, Amsterdam, 6 May 1993, lot 99, as 'Attributed to Pieter Brueghel II'.
  • with Johnny van Haeften, London, 1994, as 'Pieter Brueghel II', from whom acquired by the present owner.

Estimate: £3,500,000 - 5,500,000
Price realised: £6,308,750

Auction summary
Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale: Old Masters Evening Sale
Sale date: 6 December 2018|7pm
Sale total: £20,851,750