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6 Most interesting paintings inspired by proverbs

BY Susan Gray

19th Jan 2023 Art & Theatre

6 Most interesting paintings inspired by proverbs

From the 16th century to modern day, artists have been influenced by folk wisdom. Susan Gray explores six interesting paintings inspired by proverbs and sayings

In the 16th and 17th century, a whole art genre was devoted to reflecting and elaborating upon shared folk wisdom, typified by Pieter Breugel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). Breugel the Elder was the most significant painter of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance and a great influence on the Dutch Golden Age.  

His son Pieter Breughel the Younger did at least 16 copies of his father’s Proverbs masterpiece, but also created his own interpretation of collective wisdom, including Two Peasants Binding Firewood—a star of Birmingham’s Barber Institute’s permanent collection. While the Northen Renaissance was the high-water mark of painted proverbs, subsequent art movements also visualised the common-sense beliefs of their age.  

Pieter Breugel the Younger—Two Peasants Binding Firewood (1604-1616) 

 Two Peasants binding Firewood , about 1604 - 16, Pieter Brueghel the Younger © The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Two Peasants binding Firewood, about 1604–16 © The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

New research by Barber Institute curator Jamie Edwards has placed Breughel the Younger’s startled fat and thin peasants firmly in the tradition of Netherlandish proverbs. The startled duo look out sheepishly at the viewer, clearly up to no good. Spring was traditionally the time of firewood gathering and was also associated with Lent preparations and the carnival atmosphere, which preceded the Church’s period of abstinence.  

The rotund figure was a stock character in Netherlandish peasant paintings of drunken weddings and feasts, such as Breugel the Elder’s The Wedding Dance (1566), while the flute at the thin peasant’s feet marks him as an itinerant musician. His bandaged ear signals the proverb “to have toothache behind the ear”—in other words a malinger. 

William Hogarth—Industry and Idleness series (1747) 

The Fellow 'Prentices at their Looms: Industry and Idleness, plate 1, print, William Hogarth

William Hogarth, The Fellow 'Prentices at their Looms: Industry and Idleness, plate 1, print © William Hogarth, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The English artist’s first work to be created solely as an engraving, the series of 12 scenes shows the life story of two “‘prentices”—Francis Goodchild and Tom Idle. On the surface the scenes illustrate Biblical morality taken from Proverbs, Wisdom and Matthew, with Goodchild rising from humble beginnings to become Lord Mayor of London through hard work, church attendance and marrying his master’s daughter. Idle ends up hanged at Tyburn, after a life of gambling, exile, stealing and possibly murder.  

But closer examination shows Hogarth depicted Idle with his own features, and symbols linking the scenes, including a ceremonial sword and cat. This emphasises that far from being on divergent paths, the two ‘prentices lives are inextricably linked through the restrictions of their situations. 

William Blake—A Rolling Stone is Ever Bare of Moss (1821) 

A Rolling Stone is Ever Bare of Moss

William Blake, A Rolling Stone is Ever Bare of Moss, 1830, Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

At the age of 62, Blake pursued the new medium of wood engraving to illustrate a schoolbook, The Pastorals of Vigil. He upended the traditional meaning of “a rolling stone gathers no moss”, made popular in 16th-century England first by Erasmus, and then by playwright John Heywood, by transforming the proverbial rolling stone into a human operated industrial tool used for crushing rocks or grain.  

By tradition rolling stones were associated with vagabonds or people who did not pay their dues to society, but Blake’s interpretation of the rolling stone is as a symbol of industrialisation. Blake’s wood engravings, with bold outlines and dark shadows, influenced British artists Samuel Palmer and Graham Sutherland. 

William Holman Hunt—The Eve of St Agnes (1848) 

The Eve of St Agnes

William Holman Hunt, The Eve of St Agnes, 1848, Photo credit © City of London Corporation, CC BY-NC

A founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (painters devoted to intensely coloured and symbolic representation of traditional subjects), Holman Hunt depicted the belief that on the night before St Agnes’ feast, a young woman could see her future husband in her dreams.

The painting is based on John Keats’ poem “The Eve of St Agnes”. It features Porphyro stealing into his forbidden love Madeleine’s room, with her first believing he is a vision, and then realising Porphyro is a real man who she agrees to leave her father’s house with. 

Gustave Moreau—The Fox and the Grapes (1879-1885) 

Moreau’s watercolour illustrations of a collection of 17th-century fables by Jean de la Fontaine are jewel bright and reference other painters, including Leonardo da Vinci, Turner, Delacroix, Gericault and Hokusai—the Japanese painter of The Big Wave.  

Originally there were 64 illustrations of fables from Aesop and French folklore, but only 34 survive, following the destruction of art collections in the Second World War. The large fox stretching up for grapes on a vine tantalisingly above its head, represents Aesop’s tale of the animal being unwilling to admit defeat over the grapes being out of reach, and instead pretends they were sour and undesirable. 

Rose Wylie—Which One? retablo series (2021)

The contemporary British artist Rose Wylie is inspired by the Mexican retablo tradition of folk artists painting saints on to copper and tin as devotional objects. These untrained artists followed artistic conventions laid down by the Church so viewers would be able to recognise saints and devotional scenes through their symbols, setting and pictorial style. Wylie has combined modern graphics and symbols, such as planes, together with fable—like texts to highlight messages including the danger of climate change.

Inspired by the TV news and the internet, Wylie says of her work: “They deal with stuff we know about. They deal with betrayal, they deal with guilt. They deal with fundamental subjects that theatre and film and literature have always dealt with. They illustrate that in a very direct, clear and non-arty way.”

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