Pieter Bruegel (about 1525-69), usually known as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or "Peasant Bruegel" was the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century, is by far the most important member of the family. His nickname "Peasant Bruegel" points to the usual subjects of his paintings: peasant life, Flemish proverbs, genre scenes of village and town life and the popular Biblical scenes and mythological and religious allegories.
The information about his life is based on Carel van Mander's Het Schilderboeck (Book of Painters), published in Amsterdam in 1604 (35 years after Bruegel's death). Actually the chapter of the book dedicated to Bruegel is the only artist's bio left by his contemporary. Some other tracks like the note of marriage or death just add a couple of tiny bits of information about his life.
According to Carel van Mander Bruegel was apprenticed to Pieter Coeck van Aelst (1502-1550), a leading Antwerp master and later married his daughter Mayken. His mother-in-law Mayken Verhulst Bessemers was also a painter, engaged in miniatures. Later, after the Bruegel's death, she would give the first lessons in painting to his sons, Pieter and Jan. Bruegel became a Master of the Antwerp Guild in 1551. In 1552 - 1554 he traveled to Italy. In 1552 he was in the south of Italy , visiting Reggio Calabria, Messina , Palermo and Naples , and in the following year he was in Rome , where he came into contact with a well-known painter and miniaturist of the time, Giulio Clovio, who created a small-scale picture of the Tower of Babel on ivory, and a View of Lyons (France). Both works are now lost. On his way back to the Netherlands , Bruegel spent some time in Swiss Alps and made many drawings of the mountain landscapes.
Upon his return to Antwerp (late 1554-1555) Pieter Bruegel started working for Hieronymus Cock (1510-1570), the Antwerp engraver and publisher of prints. His Alpine sketches formed the basis of a number of elaborate landscape designs (dated from 1555 onwards), which were actually engraved by other artists. Cock was apparently pleased with Bruegel's work for he was soon employing him on figure compositions as well. Of these, the serious of The Seven Deadly Sins (1556-7) and the famous Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1557, Vienna , Albertina) are typical early examples. For the rest of his life Bruegel was active as both a painter and designer of prints, and the two activities were closely linked.
After his marriage in 1563 Bruegel and his wife settled in Brussels. In 1564 their first son, future painter Pieter Bruegel the Younger (d. 1638) was born. At that time Bruegel acquired a patron and friend, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy Antwerp merchant, who would eventually made a collection of 16 Bruegel's works. Thus he commissioned a series of the Months, unfortunately only 5 of 12 paintings survived, The Hunters in the Snow (January), The Gloomy Day (February) , Haymaking (July), The Corn Harvest (August), The Return of the Herd (November). In 1568 his second son, Jan, also a future painter, Jan Bruegel the Elder , 'Velvet' Bruegel (d.1625) was born.
Last six years of his life Bruegel was much influenced by Italian Renaissance art, whose monumentality of form he found increasingly sympathetic. This influence is evident in The Peasant Wedding , The Peasant Dance and The Peasant and the Birdnester : the figures are now larger in scale and closer to the spectator, the viewpoint is lower and there is less concern with the setting. In spite of these radical developments, however, Bruegel continued to produce paintings in his old style, with tiny figures in a panoramic space.
Bruegel died in 1569 and was buried in Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) was the elder of two sons born just a few years before their father's death. Known as "Hell Brueghel" because of his fascination with hobgoblins, fires, and grotesque figures, he made his career in Antwerp, where he became a master in the guild in 1585. He is best known as a copyist of his father's paintings, as they were both popular and scarce. In his own canvases, such as Village Fair and The Crucifixion, he shows a firm grasp of space and movement. His son, Pieter Brueghel III (1589-?1640), was also known primarily as a copyist.
Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), called the "velvet Brueghel," was the second son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and, like his brother Pieter Brueghel the Younger, made his career in Antwerp. Known for his still lifes of flowers and for his landscapes, he was a friend of Peter Paul Rubens and collaborated with him in paintings such as Adam and Eve in Paradise. He specialized in small wooded scenes that were finely finished and brightly colored. His style was perpetuated by his sons Jan Brueghel II (1601-78) and Ambrosius Brueghel (1617-75), whose sons carried on the tradition into the 18th century.