Birds of a feather flock together. When the cat’s away, the mice will play. We all know and love these common, American proverbs. Sometimes ironic, often silly and amusing, these sayings test our brains—and our wit. And it’s not just in English. Playing with language in literature, conversation, and art has been a hallmark of different cultures for centuries.
With this in mind, over 450 years ago, Dutch master Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted his incredible Netherlandish Proverbs. Also known as The Dutch Proverbs, this oil on wood painting is a detailed masterpiece that visually represents over 100 Dutch proverbs. Bruegel is known for his elaborately detailed work, and what seems at first like a simple village scene with a wide cast of characters, is soon revealed to be something more.
The Dutch proverbs reach far and wide. Some are quite similar to their American English counterparts, others have fallen out of usage, and others are simply delightfully amusing. Working your way across the panel, there is a treasure trove to discover, with figures acting out multiple phrases. There’s even significance to color.
For instance, in the case of the woman dressed in red at the center of the painting, it’s impossible to read the proverb without understanding the color symbols. In 1559, when the piece was painted, red was a color of sin. At the same time, the blue cloak she’s draping over her husband tells the other half of the tale. Blue often stood for cheating or folly, which lets us know that this woman isn’t simply handing over her husband’s coat, but rather cheating on him!
Follow along while we spell out some of our favorite Dutch proverbs, giving you the definition, or English/American equivalent, along with the original (when necessary). With Bruegel’s creativity and imagination, it’s incredible to think of how he managed to fit so much into one artwork.
And while you have to travel to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie to see the original, Google Arts & Culture has an excellent high resolution image that lets you get into the details of each and every proverb. Just think of it as Bruegel’s version of Where’s Waldo, but with words.