Before these extreme winters began, Bruegel had traveled throughout Italy. “While he visited the Alps, he had swallowed all the mountains and the cliffs, and, upon coming home, he had spit them forth upon his canvas and panels,” reads Karel van Mander’s fanciful account of Bruegel’s biography, written after the artist’s death, in 1604. Although somewhat unreliable, Van Mander’s writing on Bruegel remains the closest thing to a portrait of the artist, and it’s clear that these mountains did have a deep effect on the artist: In the top right corner of Hunters in the Snow, he transposed alpine peaks on the depicted rural village typical of the Low Countries.
Bruegel single-handedly made winter landscapes subject matter fit for serious painting. Previously, they might feature in tapestries and prints, occupy the corners of larger works, or be seen in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. It seemed that the harsh winter had gotten into Bruegel’s bones; the cold would quickly become absolutely essential to his way of seeing. For his first attempt at translating snow in paint, The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow
(1563), Bruegel would almost entirely obscure Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus with a blizzard. Largely due to the popularity of Bruegel’s snow scenes—of which copies by his son,
, and other artists were widely circulated—a whole new genre was embraced by 17th-century Dutch painters, as well as wealthy patrons.
The merchant Nicolaes Jonghelinck commissioned Hunters in the Snow as part of a sequence of six panels about the seasons—each painting illustrating two months of the year—to hang in the dining room of his suburban home near Antwerp (only four other paintings of the group survive today). Hunters in the Snow depicts the harsh midwinter months of December and January. The others show ordinary people involved in all kinds of agricultural work during the planting and harvest seasons. But Hunters creates a hiatus in the natural narrative progression of the series, one that reflects the sort of formal holiday Flemish communities took during the winter months.
The human figures here are doubly halted: frozen by the weather and in time by paint, just as the pace of life slowed during the agricultural off-season. Today when the weather is bad, public schools and offices shut, public transportation is disrupted, and people are snowed into their houses. In Bruegel’s landscape, diligent hunters have trekked out into the woods, only to return with a single small fox. Down below, a stooped figure carries bare, brittle firewood over a bridge; this person is a sort of mockery of the women in Haymaking (1565), who carry baskets of fruit on their heads in the warm summer months of June and July.