Andrew Zhu

Brueghel Jigsaws

Detail

Project Timespan

2013-2017, on and off and on and off

Inspiration

I don’t know why I gravitate towards so-called “old-people hobbies.” It’s quite puzzling. But there is certain satisfaction in seeing the incremental progress, piece-by-piece, as a grand image conglomerates together from scattered little tiles. Maybe part of my joy derives from the concept of entropic states – although the universe as a whole constantly tends towards disorder, the process of completing a jigsaw puzzle allows one to tidy up a subset of that chaos. I suppose this also carries over into my day-to-day activities as well: I’m someone who prefers a clean desk over one of clutter, though that level of desired cleanliness is not often achieved in a busy schedule.

Now, gratification from completing a puzzle is good and all, but the end image itself ideally should elicit a positive emotional reaction to the viewer. In this respect, one of my favorite artists is Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the patriarch of the Brueghel family of painters active in the 16th and 17th centuries in the modern-day Netherlands. Brueghel specialized in painting vignettes of Flemish peasant life, from hunting scenes to carnival dances. I find his style quaint, charming, and perfect for jigsaw puzzles.

I didn’t really document well my process of completing these jigsaw puzzles, and I don’t necessarily think this aspect is particularly interesting to the reader, unless it is some sort of video time-lapse. Rather, I want to provide a bit of commentary into why I chose each jigsaw puzzle. I categorized this post under the primary category of “Woodwork,” as I made the frames. There was a bit of laser cutting involved as well, but this was only limited to a complement piece to one of the jigsaw puzzles.

Peasant Wedding

The Peasant Wedding

Artist: Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Year: 1567

Dimensions: 114 cm x 164 cm

Location: Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Painting Background

My goodness, what a marry scene! Pieter Brueghel the Elder was nicknamed “Peasant” Brueghel for his predilection for depicting simple, authentic displays of country life. In this painting, we have a portrayal of a traditional wedding banquet under the confines of a large barn. The bride sits, cheeks flushed with content, hands clasped, near the center of the painting in front of the textile wall-hanging. 

Where the groom is located is less sure; the groom may not have even been permitted to attend the wedding – very odd by our standards, but in accordance with Flemish custom. If he has been permitted to attend, then the expectation is that he serve the wedding guests, in which he may be the man in red cap grabbing a bowl of porridge from the makeshift soup-carrying platform.

I find this painting so very alive, with its assortment of colors and characters! Academics have theorized that the painting symbolizes The Wedding at Cana, a Biblical tale in which Jesus performed the miracle of transforming water into wine. Indeed, the man on the front left does appear to fill up one of what seems to be an infinite number of wine vessels. However, lost in the festivities is the spiritual essence of that miracle – food, drink, and merriment has completely dominated the scene.

Jigsaw Puzzle

The puzzle itself is a 5000 piece beast by Ravensburger, released in 2009. I picked it up brand-new in 2013 and spent much of the spring and summer working my way through it. Different people have different approaches to puzzling, and I prefer looking for the edge pieces before rough-sorting by color and focusing on the large uniform swathes. For this puzzle, I first targeted the light blues, whites, and straw yellow regions.

The quality of Ravensburger puzzles is excellent, and I had a lot of fun putting everything together. And wow, looking at the completed puzzle – the colors really pop!

The frame consisted of standard base molding that we picked up from the local big-box store. Nothing special there. From my local Half Price Books, I found a nice reference on Brueghel by Wolfgang Stechow that so happened to have this particular painting on the front cover. I also added a little shelf for the book to sit next to the display.

The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark

Noahs Ark

Artist: Jan Brueghel the Elder

Year: 1613

Dimensions: 55 cm × 84 cm

Location: Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum

Painting Background

This work was painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder, the son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The subject matter of this scene is self-explanatory – two animals of each species head toward the gigantic wooden ark situated in the painting background. It’s a packed painting and it will soon be a packed boat. The Getty Museum website has a super-high resolution, zoomable version of the painting. There really are a ton of details in this painting.

As it turns out, Jan Brueghel the Younger, the son of Jan Brueghel the Older, painted his own versions of this same painting. His nephew, Jan van Kessel, also reproduced this composition. While I have not yet been to the Getty Museum in L.A., I did have the opportunity to visit the Walters Museum in Baltimore to view van Kessel’s version. The most noticeable difference are the number of birds in the sky as well as an overall darker tone of the latter work, though whether this is due to aging/preservation, I do not know.

Noah's Ark

Artist: Jan van Kessel

Year: ca. 1660

Dimensions: 65 cm × 95 cm

Location: Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum

Jigsaw Puzzle

To  be honest, while I do like the technical aspects of the painting with its depiction of, among other animals, giraffes, tigers, porcupines, toucans, and lions, I pretty much decided to get this puzzle to add to my Brueghel collection (even if the painting is by the son of Peasant Brueghel).

This 3000 piece jigsaw was produced in 1997 by Educa, a Spanish manufacturer. The quality and fit of pieces is excellent, comparable that of Ravensburger. Now, some people complete jigsaw puzzles without looking at the box art, but I am not such a stickler for that informal rule. Nevertheless, during the puzzling phase, I was somewhat annoyed by the large areas of forest regions, as the leaves all looked more or less the same to me. At the end of puzzling, I found out that I was missing a puzzle piece! So, I resorted to filling the space in with a fake piece made of cardboard that I colored with crayons.

 

Netherlandish Proverbs

Proverbs

Artist: Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Year: 1559

Dimensions: 117 cm × 163 cm

Location: Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Painting Background

This painting goes by a few name variations, including Flemish ProverbsThe Blue Cloak, and The Topsy-Turvy World. I do like the latter term, as the painting certainly is wacky. I absolutely adore this painting – it’s on the short list of artworks that I most want to see in person.

Netherlandish Proverbs depicts literal representations of commonly-used sayings in Flemish culture at that time. Some of my favorite lines are as follows:

1. To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ

(To hide deceit under a veneer of Christian piety)

2. To fall from the ox onto the rear end of an ass

(To fall on hard times)

3. He who eats fire, craps sparks

(Do not be surprised at the outcome if you attempt a dangerous venture)

4. Two fools under one hood

(Stupidity loves company)

5. Fear makes the old woman trot

(An unexpected event can reveal unknown qualities)

As an aside, one of my favorite artists is the indie folk band Fleet Foxes. Their eponymous debut album featured this painting as its album cover. Go listen to that album if you aren’t familiar – it’s a treat to the ears. 

Wikimedia Commons has a neat interactive display of the painting wherein it has boxes of each of the proverbs depicted. Fun fact – Peasant Breughel’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, produced 16 versions of this painting!

Jigsaw Puzzle

Ravensburger also produced this puzzle, a 3000-piecer, way back in 1977. I actually spent a not-insignificant amount of time trying to find a copy of this puzzle, but I am so glad I did!

 

I worked on this puzzle throughout my breaks in college when I would go back home. Therefore, this one took quite several months to complete, if not more.

While one doesn’t really need to know any of the proverbs to appreciate the creativity of this painting, knowing the sayings makes the viewing experience just that much richer. I had access to a laser cutter, so I decided to create a companion piece of the described proverbs alongside the jigsaw puzzle. I found a website which had the perfect layout: a simplified outline drawing of the painting with numbered proverbs.

Lessons Learned & Improvements

One controversy in jigsaw puzzling is whether or not to apply glue after completion of a puzzle to permanently fix the pieces in place. When I first started, I leaned towards applying glue – I used Mod-Podge on both the Peasant Wedding and the Noah’s Ark puzzles. However, by the time I completed the Netherlandish Proverbs in 2017, I had changed my mind about gluing puzzles; it also helped that that puzzle is an uncommon 1970s Ravensburger. Therefore, I made sure to make the frame nice and sturdy to keep the pieces securely in place, even if they are all “free-floating” between the glass and backing.

 

With regards to the frames themselves, my tastes have shifted to prefer an unstained wood finish, so in retrospect I would use appropriate species for the desired colored hues (e.g. walnut). The glass that covers the jigsaw puzzle does glare in the light, so if I had to do it over again, I would have used non-glare glass.

 

For the Netherlandish Proverbs puzzle, I made an accompanying proverbs guide – in hindsight, it would have made for crisper details to etch away the outlines while keeping the background dark. I’m still happy by the way it turned out!

Wedding6

Reflection

It has been a few years since I have completed a large-scale jigsaw, and I have a behemoth (Ravensburger’s mongastic 9000 piece “The Bombardment of Algiers” by George Chambers) to get through first. However, I would love to collect a couple more jigsaw puzzles of Pieter Brueghel’s works. In particular, his famous “The Tower of Babel” comes to mind – Ravensburger has a 5000 piece version of that as well.

 

One day, though, my plan is to make my own set of wooden puzzles using a laser cutter. I think that 1/8 inch Baltic birch plywood with a high-contrast design such as a wood print would be most suitable for this idea.