The Festival of Fools
Van Bastelaer 195, state A (first of three states); Hollstein IX (Van der Heyden) 60
Sheet: 32.5 x 43.7 cm (12 13/16 x 17 3/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
Pieter Bruegel made only one autograph print; yet, printmaking was pivotal in his career, and he remains one of the central figures in the history of printmaking. Equally ironic is the scant knowledge we have of the life of this towering figure in Northern European art: the date and place of his birth, the nature of his artistic training, and his religious and political beliefs all remain unknown. Nonetheless, his reputation is secured by highly original paintings, drawings, and prints treating subjects ranging across landscape, allegory, biblical history, and peasant life–often conflating such genres.
One of Bruegel’s most raucous designs, “The Festival of Fools” combines allegory with images of rural life, casting fools in the roles of both peasants and aristocrats at play. They dance and bowl, fight and make music. They assume the parts of pilgrims, acrobats, and peddlers. Despite their raucous behavior, there are neither kegs of ale nor vats of wine: their foolishness comes from within. A long inscription accompanying the image includes telling passages, “…Numbskulls are found in all nations, / Even if they do not wear a fool’s cap on their heads….Yet there are numbskulls who behave themselves wisely, / And understand the true sense of numbskulling / Because they [who] have found folly in themselves / Shall best hit the pin with their numbskulls.” These are echoes Erasmus’s celebrated satire “Praise of Folly” (1509) which taught the importance of recognizing and embracing human foolishness in order to overcome one’s own failings. The lack of a dominant focal point in Bruegel’s image may serve to underscore the universality of foolishness.
Bruegel’s activity as a print designer began in 1554 and lasted the rest of his life. He worked primarily with Antwerp publisher Hieronymus Cock, the most important purveyor of printed images in Northern Europe. Relying on a stable of skillful engravers, including Pieter van der Heyden, Cock and Bruegel produced 64 engravings of consistently high quality. After Bruegel’s death in 1569 and Cock’s in 1570, the latter’s widow continued to publish Bruegel’s designs under the imprint “Aux Quatre Vents” (To the Four Winds), a proclamation of her ability send visual message to all corners of the world. “The Festival of Fools” emerged from this last phase.
It appears that the widow Cock sought to capitalize on a large drawing left behind by Bruegel. “The Festival of Fools” stands out among Bruegel’s prints in that extensive changes were made to the image during the process of engraving: additional shading, additional plants, and elaborate decoration of the cupola of the theater-like structure. The present proof impression precedes these many changes and is one of only two known to survive from this early printing. The subsequent adjustments to the image raise the possibility that Van der Heyden was contending with problems posed by a drawing left incomplete at Bruegel’s death.
Sam Josefowitz (Lausanne, Switzerland); with Robert Light (Santa Barbara, CA), from whom purchased by MFA, June 25, 2008.
Katherine E. Bullard Fund in memory of Francis Bullard