In Focus: Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel

Our new In Focus series will highlight details that we love, from paintings to architectural features to hidden symbols.  In our first edition, art historians Lisa Regan and Sarah Cormack help bring us inside a wonderful painting by Pieter Bruegel, “Children’s Games.”  Located in Vienna,  we often touch on the Flemish painter’s work during our guided visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Slide 1
With around 230 children at play, this 1560 work by Bruegel has often been analyzed by scholars looking for allegorical meaning or religious symbolism. However, our scholars also think this view into a town ruled by children speaks to a sort of utopia where everyone is caught in the moment and in an age before more worldly concerns take over.
Slide 2
Sarah Cormack notes that people often spend so much time focusing on the details that they forget Bruegel carefully laid out all of his compositions. This vanishing point from the upper right of the painting shows that while he bringing activity to the foreground, he never forgot the tools needed to create space.
Slide 3
In contrast to the frenetic energy of the horseplay in the center, Bruegel didn't forget that children also love role-play. A quieter moment from the lower left shows them acting out adult roles.
Slide 4
People can often miss the delicate work in the upper left of the piece, but our scholars love this sweet moment when the children whirl around by the river banks, creating voluminous circles with their skirts.
Slide 5
Playing dress up with a carnival mask, this boy peers out of a window at the upper left side of the painting and draws the viewer in.
Slide 6
Some of the actions are adventurous with a hint of caution. This boy is about to take on stilt walking, but he's not quite adventurous enough to leave the safety of the wall just yet!
Slide 7
Another favorite detail are the two girls in the lower left playing with knuckle-bones ("jacks").
Slide 8
A pair of binoculars is always helpful for viewing artwork, but especially so when viewing a Bruegel. Just under the beautifully rendered arcade in the far left of the composition, we can make out children spinning tops.
Slide 9
What were the rules of these games? It's a question we can't always answer. Will the boys running the gauntlet get caught out if the seated children lift their legs and trip them?
Slide 10
This detail from the center of the painting highlights the physicality Lisa Regan loves about the piece. Here the children give in entirely to their animal urges and literally become beasts -- the frogs in leap-frog, the horses in a tug of war. These energies seem to be in tension throughout the piece, giving it its energy. The question, of course, is what the viewer is to do with this display, and with these wild energies. Bruegel leaves these questions for the viewer to decide.