He writes tellingly of the loss of parents, ‘the loss,’ he says, ‘not just of individuals that we love but of a communal manner of being’. But for all the family history, the real strength of this book lies in Ferris’s infectious enthusiasm for Bruegel, and every arcane offshoot loops back to the artist’s work. He is brilliant on the detail, on the slight variations that denote the master from the copyists, on the realities of peasant life, on the marginal figures; and Bruegel of all painters is the most rewarding subject for this sort of scrutiny. The book is nicely illustrated, but still cries out for more —a catalogue raisonné or a tablet feels more or less essential.
There are numerous incidental insights on Bruegel along the way. He painted pretzels so accurately, for example, that historians have been able to look at his knots and work out local variations; twelve of his pictures have figures that stare out at the viewer; wheels seem to have fascinated him, and cart wheels, watermills, windmills and execution wheels appear everywhere. Not all of Ferris’s observations, however, hit the mark: some have the quality of aphorisms (‘It is the darkness that makes the fire remarkable’), while others are more sonorous than meaningful.
He makes no claim to be an authority on Bruegel. After hours of scrutinising the paintings, sometimes through binoculars, he credits himself with spotting one previously unnoticed incidental detail. But he has read the experts and absorbed their knowledge. He observes, as others have, that even Bruegel’s biggest, most crowded paintings tend to be made up of small groups engaged in their own activities. In the snowscape The Census at Bethlehem, for example, some villagers have turned a hollow tree into a tavern, with an inn sign and a barrel for a table. Elsewhere, peasants are slaughtering a pig. Others are skating on the frozen river and a woman has swept the snow away to make a slide. Among so many people it is easy to miss the Holy family — pregnant Mary on a donkey and carpenter Joseph striding along, a saw slung over his shoulder.