bruegel the elder
The earliest surviving works, including two drawings with Italian scenery sketched on the southward journey and dated 1552, are landscapes. A number of drawings of Alpine regions, produced between 1553 and 1556, indicate the great impact of the mountain experience on this man from the Low Countries. With the possible exception of a drawing of a mountain valley by Leonardo da Vinci, the landscapes resulting from this journey are almost without parallel in European art for their rendering of the overpowering grandeur of the high mountains. Very few of the drawings were done on the spot, and several were done after Bruegel’s return, at an unknown date, to Antwerp. The vast majority are free compositions, combinations of motifs sketched on the journey through the Alps. Some were intended as designs for engravings commissioned by Hiëronymus Cock, an engraver and Antwerp’s foremost publisher of prints.
Bruegel was to work for Cock until his last years, but from 1556 on he concentrated, surprisingly enough, on satirical, didactic, and moralizing subjects, often in the fantastic or grotesque manner of Hiëronymus Bosch, imitations of whose works were very popular at the time. Other artists were content with a more or less close imitation of Bosch, but Bruegel’s inventiveness lifted his designs above mere imitation, and he soon found ways to express his ideas in a much different manner. His early fame rested on prints published by Cock after such designs. But the new subject matter and the interest in the human figure did not lead to the abandonment of landscape. Bruegel in fact extended his explorations in this field. Side by side with his mountain compositions, he began to draw the woods of the countryside; he turned then to Flemish villages and, in 1562, to townscapes with the towers and gates of Amsterdam.
In this atmosphere Bruegel reached the height of his career as a painter. Two years before his death, the Eighty Years’ War began between the United Provinces and Spain. Although Bruegel did not live to see it, seven provinces became independent and formed the Dutch Republic, while the other ten remained under Habsburg control at the end of the war. 
The two main early sources for Bruegel‘s biography are Lodovico Guicciardini’s account of the Low Countries (1567) and Karel van Mander’s 1604 Schilder-boeck.  Guicciardini recorded that Bruegel was born in Breda, but Van Mander specified that Bruegel was born in a village (dorp) near Breda called “Brueghel”,  which does not fit any known place.  Nothing at all is known of his family background. Van Mander seems to assume he came from a peasant background, in keeping with the over-emphasis on Bruegel‘s peasant genre scenes given by van Mander and many early art historians and critics. 
A vast, partially constructed tower dominates Bruegel‘s extraordinary 1563 work The Tower of Babel. Surrounding the structure is a landscape dotted with tiny figures, some of whom march in procession around its curving stories, while others toil at the scaffolds along its sides. To the right, ships unload building materials; in every respect of detail, the painting is minutely, naturalistically accurate.
Oil on wood – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Bruegel painted three different paintings of the Tower of Babel – an etiological myth in the Old Testament. While one of the three paintings is lost, the remaining two represent some of Bruegel’s finest work. This version depicted below is the most famous, and for good reason.
Bruegel’s piece the Fall of Icarus captures the exact climax of this story aesthetically, as viewers can see a pair of legs poking out from the sea on the foreground of the painting. Yet, while the tale does reference this as a tragic event, the subjects in Bruegel’s painting appear to be passive rather than entranced, as they continue on with their daily routines, alluding to a metaphorical connection about how humans may perceive tragic events.
In contrast, scholars of the last 60 years have emphasized the intellectual content of his work, and conclude: “There is, in fact, every reason to think that Pieter Bruegel was a townsman and a highly educated one, on friendly terms with the humanists of his time”, ignoring van Mander’s dorf and just placing his childhood in Breda itself. Breda was already a significant centre as the base of the House of Orange-Nassau, with a population of some 8,000, although 90% of the 1300 houses were destroyed in a fire in 1534. However, this reversal can be taken to excess; although Bruegel moved in highly educated humanist circles, it seems “he had not mastered Latin”, and had others add the Latin captions in some of his drawings.
The two main early sources for Bruegel’s biography are Lodovico Guicciardini’s account of the Low Countries (1567) and Karel van Mander’s 1604 Schilder-boeck. Guicciardini recorded that Bruegel was born in Breda, but van Mander specified that Bruegel was born in a village near Breda called “Brueghel”, which does not fit any known place. Nothing at all is known of his family background. Van Mander seems to assume he came from a peasant background, in keeping with the over-emphasis on Bruegel’s peasant genre scenes given by van Mander and many early art historians and critics.