Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting

How Can We Be Composed?: Bruegel's
Hunters in the Snow

By Nancy Huntting

I love this painting, Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel, the great Flemish painter of the 16th century

Bruegel shows a vast, snow-covered landscape. We see a valley full of ponds, a winding river, steeply roofed houses and steepled churches, many people skating, many trees and hills, and some of the sharpest mountain crags ever. Down below on the right there's a mill with its wheel frozen, and people working near it—

—to the left there's a blazing wind-blown fire with a family working around it. There are black birds perched, observing in different directions on the tree branches and one flying with wings outstretched. And there are the three hunters returning with their pack of varied dogs. 

With all its diversity and activity, surprisingly, a person feels composed looking at this painting—and I'll try to show why. 

Eli Siegel, the great American poet and critic, founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, describes in his essay, Art As Composition, what this painting has and every person wants: 

The mind of man wants to see reality in two ways: as reassuringly continuous, and as delightfully surprising.  If a person knew how much sameness he wanted to see in reality, he would be astonished; if he knew, too, how much difference he wanted to see in reality, he would be astonished.  Man wants to see reality at once as the same and different: through art he can do this...
I think in every detail, Hunters in the Snow shows reality as "delightfully surprising" and "reassuringly continuous," and as it does, Aesthetic Realism shows, Bruegel is answering a question of our lives.  I had the honor of studying with Eli Siegel and I saw in him great kindness and good will. Mr. Siegel enabled people to use art to meet our deepest purpose in life: to know and like the world.

     All the best critics of Bruegel speak of the greatness of this composition, which Helen Gardner describes in Art through the Ages

A clearly enunciated diagonal movement, marked by dogs and hunters, and trees, starts from the lower left-hand corner and continues, less definitely but none the less surely, by the road, the row of small trees, and the church far across the valley to the jutting crags of the hills.  This movement is countered by an opposing diagonal from the lower right, marked by the edge of the snow-covered hill and repeated again and again in details. 
That great diagonal from the hunters to the mountain crags takes in all the up and down and diversity of the valley in between, joins the things nearest to us and the things farthest away, gathers all the difference in the painting.  And the other diagonal, in a different direction, joins the lowest part in the foreground to the highest point. The diagonals are the same and different, what makes them  up is all the different things in the painting. And this crossing of diagonal lines is repeated in details—in the hunters' spears, in the roofs of the houses, where the flying bird crosses the horizon, in the branches of the trees, and even in the tiny figures skating.  There is more and more sameness, with more and more difference, and the accumulation gives me a sense of wonder at the complexity and order of reality as seen by Bruegel.

     I think the thing people most need to know is what Aesthetic Realism teaches and this painting confirms—that the world in all its richness is not an interference—it is a completion, an affirmation of ourselves. In his book Self and World, Mr. Siegel describes the kind of composition every person wants: 

In all beautiful arrangements, difference works with sameness, separateness with togetherness. According to Aesthetic Realism, the self is trying to come into composition with the world, and at the same time be different, individual, separate, free.

Continued, Part 2: Near and Far

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This talk is from the series "Art Answers the Questions of Your Life!" given in the Terrain Gallery of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in NYC. The series is based on the landmark principle stated by Eli Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."

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