Work The Beggars
Department of Paintings: Flemish painting
© 2003 RMN / Gérard Blot
On the back of the painting are contemporary inscriptions in Latin and Flemish commenting on the subject-wishing cripples good cheer-and the way art rivals nature. The underlying significance of the scene, the meaning of the foxtails in particular, remains unclear.
Cripples, take heart!
Five beggars and cripples are dragging themselves along painfully on their crutches in the sunny courtyard of a hospital built of red brick. They seem to be about to head off in different directions to beg, as is the woman in the background who is shown holding a begging bowl. On the back of the painting is an inscription in Flemish, "Cripples, take heart, and may your affairs prosper."
A difficult work
Many hypotheses have been put forward to interpret this painting, particularly addressing the question of what the foxtails, hanging from the garments worn by the beggars, are meant to symbolize. The scene may be an allusion to Koppermaandag, the beggars' feast day held annually on the Monday after Epiphany, when the beggars would sing as they begged for alms in the streets. The composition could also be an example of the carnivalesque tradition of the world upside-down. In this case, the work would be a satirical parody, with the beggars representing the different classes of a society on the road to ruin. The classes are indicated by their headgear: a cardboard crown for the king, a paper coiffe for the army, a beret for the bourgeoisie, a cap for the peasantry, and a bishop's mitre for the church. The painting is also thought to contain an allusion to the political situation of the day and the Beggars' Revolt against the Spanish occupation. In 1566 Calvinist lords tried to rally the minor nobility and the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie to form a sort of national unity, united by the cry "Vive le gueux" (long live the beggar!). It is thought that the foxtail was the symbol they used to show they belonged to the movement.
A small yet powerful painting
None of the hypotheses put forward to explain the work, however convincing they may appear, have been proven. Moreover, Bruegel had already used the same theme of beggars in one of his large-scale works, The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). In this work, the cripples are just one of many details in a large, colorful crowd, and were not intended as a denunciation of religion or politics, suggesting the same may be the case for this smaller work. In this case, the foxtails may simply be another sad indicator of their status as beggars. Whatever the truth of the matter, the painting remains an extremely powerful work. Unfortunately, this is the only work by Bruegel the Elder in the Louvre. One can but admire the skilled use of space, reminiscent of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, twisting the malformed bodies into a bizarre, limping round dance. A Latin inscription on the back of the painting, probably added by one of its first owners, praises the perfection of Bruegel's art, claiming its realism rivals nature itself. The pitiless depiction of human degradation contrasts sharply with the colorful and joyous light that bathes the scene as a whole.
BibliographyRoger. H. MARIJNISSEN, Bruegel, tout l'oeuvre peint et dessiné, Anvers, Fonds Mercator, Paris, Éditions Albin Michel. 1988, pp. 354-358.
Pieter BRUEGEL the Elder (Breughel[?], circa 1525-Brussels, 1569)
Oil on wood
H. 0.185 m; W. 0.215 m
Gift of Paul Mantz, honorary director general of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, 1892
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