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

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

Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Bruegel

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—

Bruegel, Hunters in the Snow, detail

—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.

Bruegel, Hunters in the Snow, detail

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.

Near and Far

One of the reasons I care for this painting so much is the way it puts together near and far. Mr. Siegel writes about Hunters in the Snow in Art As Composition“the immediate in the picture mingles with a various middle ground, and a spacious, rising, misty background.”

Bruegel, Hunters in the Snow

I had an awful time with nearness and distance. I could be maddeningly calm because, in fact, I was absent. As I was growing up I was known for my ability to tune out what was around me—I would, for instance, read books in the late afternoon about the Black Stallion, who was on a remote, imaginary island, and when my mother called me, I conveniently wouldn’t hear. When people spoke to me I’d often take a long time responding.  I used what was near to me against knowing a larger world, and used the fact that I could get away in my mind against what was happening close to me. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that these ways, which I treasured, were contempt for the world, which was the cause of my feeling I was empty, a shadow, dull.

“Art wants to see the distant in the near,” Mr. Siegel said in a lecture about art and the family.  I studied Hunters in the Snow to see how Bruegel does this.  I discovered that the most distant thing in the painting—the highest mountain crag, with its triangular shape, is repeated again and again! We can find that triangle in the flying bird’s wing, the steeples of the churches, the steep roofs of the houses, and most surprising of all, I realized that the whole foreground shape made by the diagonal of the hill and the house nearest to us is almost exactly the same as that crag!

And a colleague pointed out to me another great thing Bruegel has done: the crag is really more open and shown to us than those three hunters whose faces we cannot see.  The largest, most visible human beings in the painting are also among the darkest, most unknown things. And they are each carrying a spear at the same sharp diagonal as that distant crag. The distant is in the near.

One of  the large things that has made for greater composure in my life is learning to see how the people near to me have the structure of the whole world in them—opposites,  such as near and far. They have thoughts, for instance, which  I don’t know, that can be about anything in the world. I have a greater desire to know the world far and near. A wife can ask: What can I learn about my husband from this article in the newspaper? A son or daughter can ask: Are my mother’s ups and downs like my own?  And are we both related to the Adirondacks?

Smoothness and Sharpness, Indolence and Wrath

In one of the first Aesthetic Realism classes I attended taught by Eli Siegel, he asked me:  “What did you condemn yourself most for?” I said, “For wanting to do nothing.” Mr. Siegel asked me if I had read a famous poem by Alfred Tennyson called “The Lotus Eaters.” This poem is about soldiers returning from the Trojan wars who land on an island and discover the lotus, and just want to lie on a hill, eating the lotus and letting the confusing world go by while they dreamily look down on it. “Were they Hunttingish?” Mr. Siegel asked. They were. I like to look down from my indolent heights.

Bruegel has a very different purpose as he looks down on a valley from a hill. Bruegel respects the world, is energetic in his perception, “precise” (as Helen Gardner describes it) in composition. Bruegel wants the distant world to be close to us, and he wants us to feel warm, even about snow.

In this class, Mr. Siegel asked me “Did you also get very angry? People who have indolence,” he said, “can also tear up the place.” I had never put these two aspects of myself together, they were so different. It interfered with my sense of composure to think of myself as angry—except, of course, when I was, and then I could yell and throw things. Mr. Siegel composed these two things in me, and in people, in a couplet:

Excessive indolence and a tendency to wrath,
That is what Nancy Huntting hath.

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that my indolence came from my having unjust contempt for the world—I got pleasure thinking I was too good for it and it wasn’t worthy of me getting excited about. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” And my anger came from my preferring to blame the world for my dislike of myself, rather than criticize myself.

I wanted to see  reality as making too many provoking, sharp demands of me, and to get to some composure through making it softer and vaguer. People make the world worse than it is—but also nicer, smoother than it is. Then it can suddenly come at us sharply and we see it as our enemy. A large reason I love this painting is because Bruegel shows that sharp, angular lines and softer curves complete each other, and the relation makes for something so surprisingly warm and energetic! In Bruegel’s winter scene, snow blankets everything, yet unlike the way I tried to smooth down reality, the snow does not dull the picture, it intensifies the red brick of the houses and the shapes of the figures, while at the same time it make for unity and calm.

The hunters are silhouetted sharply against the white snow, and they stand for fierceness. It seems though, they haven’t been so successful—we see only one fox has been brought back, and their heads are bent as their dogs are, laboring through the snow. They are humble figures in relation to the vast, lively world before them.

Bruegel is telling us reality, like ourselves, is always a relation of intensity and quiet, sharpness and gentleness. I learned this tremendous fact: when our purpose is to have contempt for the world, these opposites are split in our minds, not composed, and this makes for boredom, unkindness, and self-dislike. Bruegel as artist shows that respect for the structure of the world composes these opposites, making for beauty. Those mountains are the sharpest I’ve ever seen, but they are also in softer colors, in some mist, with curving white snow.

The houses are warm red,  and hidden, too. The people skating and working are remote, unknown, but they are so lovingly detailed by Bruegel that we can feel their emotions.

I’m proud to end this talk with Mr. Siegel’s description from his essay “Art as Composition”:

Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow is a picture that tells us, Everything can be composed. Lines can be composed. The general direction of the picture is at a slant, or diagonal; the trees are assertively vertical; there are horizontal lines with the snow. Varying white shapes differ and coalesce. Houses, as volumes, mingle with snow as weight, and with space. Birds are diagonal, vertical, horizontal. The immediate in the picture mingles with a various middle ground, and a spacious, rising, misty background. Here is reality’s plenty caught hold of by Bruegel and arranged. In Bruegel’s composition, there are tenderness and mystery—corresponding somewhat to curved lines and straight lines. Composition and reality make for a pleasure from reality as the picture. —Eli Siegel, Art as Composition

Through the study of Aesthetic Realism, we can have the composition of art in our lives, and the great pleasure it makes for. This is the greatest news I know.


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.”