August 2002

A young artist’s fascinating odyssey

By Anders C. Shafer
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Pieter Bruegel was a 16th century artist, known for his quirky presentation of people and places. Besides painting traditional portraits and landscapes, he was famous for his illustrations of parables and proverbs, such as Big Fish Eat Little Fish and Tower of Babel.

Anders C. Shafer, an artist in his own right and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, concentrates on two years of Bruegel's life as the young artist travels across Europe to find inspiration for his paintings. His journey is the backdrop for this charming book.

The Fantastic Voyage of Pieter Bruegel is written loosely in journal form from the subject's point of view, with his impressions of the people and cities he visits. He departs from his home town of Antwerp, following his mentor's advice to travel to Rome and complete his formal education there. Along the way, Bruegel encounters the usual mix of humankind: helpful hosts who take him in as one of their own and mean-spirited folks who threaten his safety and pocketbook.

The young artist writes of his adventures as he travels to France, where he meets an unscrupulous ferry pilot; over the Alps, where he is accosted by a band of boys who seek to rob him; and to Sicily, where he finds an unusual topic to paint: a group of beekeepers plying their trade in outfits which render them safe from the bees, but virtually sightless.

At last, Bruegel arrives in Rome and is totally awed by the heady experience. He finds work painting trees on the ceiling of a church. The highlight of his journey, though, is when the great Michelangelo visits the church and offers comments on the work. He draws and sculpts like an angel, Bruegel reports, but he stinks like a monkey. So much for hero worship.

The illustrations by Shafer are simple and complex at the same time, not unlike Bruegel himself. At the end of the journal, Shafer includes reproductions of several of Bruegel's masterpieces.

This book provides a wonderful opportunity to introduce children not only to the world of art, but aspects of history as well. And Shafer presents his subject in a way that makes these lessons easy to absorb.

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