Netherlandish Proverbs

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Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Brueghel the Elder - The Dutch Proverbs - Google Art Project.jpg
ArtistPieter Bruegel the Elder
Dimensions117 cm × 163 cm (46 in × 64 in)
LocationGemäldegalerie, Berlin

Netherlandish Proverbs (Dutch: Nederlandse Spreekwoorden; also called Flemish Proverbs, The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) is a 1559 oil-on-oak-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder that depicts a scene in which humans and, to a lesser extent, animals and objects, offer literal illustrations of Dutch-language proverbs and idioms.

Running themes in Bruegel's paintings that appear in Netherlandish Proverbs are the absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of humans. Its original title, The Blue Cloak or The Folly of the World, indicates that Bruegel's intent was not just to illustrate proverbs, but rather to catalogue human folly. Many of the people depicted show the characteristic blank features that Bruegel used to portray fools.[1]

His son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, specialised in making copies of his father's work and painted at least 16 copies of Netherlandish Proverbs.[2] Not all versions of the painting, by father or son, show exactly the same proverbs and they also differ in other minor details.



Proverbs were very popular in Bruegel's time and before; a hundred years before Bruegel's painting, illustrations of proverbs had been popular in the Flemish books of hours.[3] A number of collections were published, including Adagia, by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus.[4] The French writer François Rabelais employed significant numbers in his novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, completed in 1564.[5]

The Flemish artist Frans Hogenberg made an engraving illustrating 43 proverbs in around 1558, roughly the same time as Bruegel's painting.[6][7] The work is very similar in composition to Bruegel's and includes certain proverbs (like the Blue Cloak) which also feature prominently in Netherlandish Proverbs.[7] By depicting literal renditions of proverbs in a peasant setting, both artists have shown a "world turned upside down".[7]

Bruegel himself had painted several minor paintings on the subject of proverbs including Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1556) and Twelve Proverbs (1558), but Netherlandish Proverbs is thought to have been his first large-scale painting on the theme.

The painting[edit]

The painting, dated 1559, is considered the best of a series of similar paintings which at one time or other have all previously been attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, has been x-rayed for its underdrawing to compare it to other versions. None of the versions have a provenance going back further than the late 19th-century, but Brueghel scholars believe that the paintings are the elder Bruegel's inventions, which all make use of a life-size cartoon with the same underdrawing as that used in the Berlin version.[8] The paintings, which are not inscribed, tease the viewer into guessing proverbs. They are based on 1558 and earlier engravings that are inscribed, in Flemish. The most notable of these regarding the paintings is by Frans Hogenberg, and it is dated 1558 and accompanied by the title Die blau huicke is dit meest ghenaemt, maer des weerelts abvisen he beter betaempt (English: Often called 'The Blue Cloak', this could better be called 'The World's Follies'). The Doetecum brothers produced a print series in 1577 called De Blauwe Huyck. Theodoor Galle also made a print, dated later, with a similar title: Dese wtbeeldinghe wort die blauw hvyck genaemt, maer deze werelts abvysen haer beter betaemt.[9]

Proverbs and idioms[edit]

Critics have praised the composition for its ordered portrayal and integrated scene.[7] There are approximately 126 identifiable proverbs and idioms in the scene, although Bruegel may have included others which cannot be determined because of the language change. Some of those incorporated in the painting are still in popular use, for instance "Swimming against the tide", "Banging one's head against a brick wall" and "Armed to the teeth". Many more have faded from use, which makes analysis of the painting harder. "Having one's roof tiled with tarts", for example, which meant to have an abundance of everything and was an image Bruegel would later feature in his painting of the idyllic Land of Cockaigne (1567).

The Blue Cloak, the piece's original title, features in the centre of the piece and is being placed on a man by his wife, indicating that she is cuckolding him. Other proverbs indicate human foolishness. A man fills in a pond after his calf has died. Just above the central figure of the blue-cloaked man, another man carries daylight in a basket. Some of the figures seem to represent more than one figure of speech (whether this was Bruegel's intention or not is unknown), such as the man shearing a sheep in the centre bottom left of the picture. He is sitting next to a man shearing a pig, so represents the expression "One shears sheep and one shears pigs", meaning that one has the advantage over the other, but may also represent the advice "Shear them but don't skin them", meaning make the most of available assets.

List of proverbs and idioms featured in the painting[edit]

Expressions featured in the painting[10][11]
Proverb/idiom Meaning Area Image
001 To be able to tie even the devil to a pillow (fr)(nl) Obstinacy overcomes everything Lower left NP-1.jpg
002 To be a pillar-biter (fr)(nl)(it)(lmo) To be a religious hypocrite Lower left NP-2.jpg
003 Never believe someone who carries fire in one hand and water in the other (fr)(nl) To be two-faced and to stir up trouble Lower left NP-3.jpg
004 To bang one's head against a brick wall (fr)(nl) To waste one's time on an impossible task Lower left NP-6.jpg
005 One foot shod, the other bare(fr)(nl) Balance is paramount Lower left NP-68.jpg
006 The sow pulls the bung (fr)(nl) Negligence will be rewarded with disaster Lower left NP-4.jpg
007 To bell the cat (fr)(nl) To carry out a dangerous or impractical plan Lower left NP-5.jpg
008 To be armed to the teeth (fr)(nl) To be heavily armed Lower left NP-5.jpg
009 To put your armor on (fr)(nl) To be angry Lower left NP-5.jpg
010 One shears sheep, the other shears pigs (fr)(nl) One has all the advantages, the other none Lower left NP-7.jpg
011 Shear them but do not skin them (fr)(nl) Do not press your advantage too far Lower left NP-18.jpg
012 The herring does not fry here (nl) It's not going according to plan Lower left NP-15.jpg
013 To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe (fr)(nl) To do too much to achieve a little Lower left NP-15.jpg
014 To get the lid on the head (nl) To end up taking responsibility Lower left NP-16.jpg
015 The herring hangs by its own gills (fr)(nl) You must accept responsibility for your own actions Lower left NP-17.jpg
016 There is more in it than an empty herring (nl) There is more to it than meets the eye Lower left NP-17.jpg
017 What can smoke do to iron? (fr)(nl) There is no point in trying to change the unchangeable Lower left NP-92.jpg
018 To find the dog in the pot (fr)(nl) To arrive too late for dinner and find all the food has been eaten Lower left[note 1] NP-109.jpg
019 To sit between two stools in the ashes (fr)(nl) To be indecisive Lower left NP-11.jpg
020 To be a hen feeler (fr)(nl) To be very miserly (feeling whether the hen is about to lay an egg before slaughtering it) Middle left NP-8.jpg
021 The scissors hang out there (fr)(nl) They are liable to cheat you there Upper left NP-10.jpg
022 To always gnaw on a single bone (fr)(nl) To continually talk about the same subject Upper left NP-9.jpg
023 It depends on the fall of the cards (fr)(nl) It is up to chance Upper left NP-13.jpg
024 The world is turned upside down (fr)(nl) Everything is the opposite of what it should be Upper left NP-14.jpg
025 Leave at least one egg in the nest (fr)(nl) Always have something in reserve Upper left NP-12.jpg
026 To crap on the world (fr)(nl) To despise everything Upper left NP-19.jpg
027 To lead each other by the nose (fr)(nl) To fool each other Upper left NP-21.jpg
028 The die is cast (fr)(nl) The decision is made Upper left NP-90.jpg
029 Fools get the best cards (fr)(nl) Luck can overcome intelligence Upper left NP-20.jpg
030 To look through one's fingers (fr)(nl) To turn a blind eye Upper left NP-22.jpg
031 There hangs the knife (fr)(nl) To issue a challenge Upper left NP-23.jpg
032 There stand the wooden shoes (fr)(nl) To wait in vain Upper left NP-24.jpg
033 To stick out the broom (fr)(nl) To have fun while the master is away Upper left NP-25.jpg
034 To marry under the broomstick (fr)(nl) To live together without marrying Upper left NP-26.jpg
035 To have the roof tiled with tarts (fr)(nl) To be very wealthy Upper left NP-27.jpg
036 To have a hole in one's roof (fr)(nl) To be unintelligent Upper left NP-104.jpg
037 An old roof needs a lot of patching up (fr)(nl) Old things need more maintenance Upper left NP-105.jpg
038 The roof has laths(fr)(nl) There could be eavesdroppers (The walls have ears) Middle left NP-103.jpg
039 To have toothache behind the ears(fr)(nl) To be a malingerer Middle left NP-29.jpg
040 To be pissing against the moon(fr)(nl) To waste one's time on a futile endeavour Middle left NP-32.jpg
041 Here hangs the pot(fr)(nl) It is the opposite of what it should be Middle left NP-106.jpg
042 To shoot a second bolt to find the first(fr)(nl) To repeat a foolish action Upper left NP-28.jpg
043 To shave the fool without lather(fr)(nl) To trick somebody Middle NP-30.jpg
044 Two fools under one hood(fr)(nl) Stupidity loves company Middle NP-34.jpg
045 It grows out of the window(fr)(nl) It cannot be concealed Middle NP-33.jpg
046 To play on the pillory(fr)(nl) To attract attention to one's shameful acts Upper middle NP-31.jpg
047 When the gate is open the pigs will run into the corn(fr)(nl) Disaster ensues from carelessness Upper middle NP-40.jpg
048 When the corn decreases the pig increases If one person gains then another must lose Upper middle NP-40.jpg
049 To run like one's backside is on fire(fr)(nl) To be in great distress Upper middle NP-94.jpg
050 He who eats fire, craps sparks Do not be surprised at the outcome if you attempt a dangerous venture Upper middle NP-94.jpg
051 To hang one's cloak according to the wind(fr)(nl) To adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion Upper middle NP-39.jpg
052 To toss feathers in the wind (fr)(nl) To work fruitlessly Upper middle NP-42.jpg
053 To gaze at the stork(fr)(nl) To waste one's time Upper middle NP-38.jpg
054 To try to kill two flies with one stroke(fr)(nl) To be efficient (equivalent to today's To kill two birds with one stone) Upper middle NP-43.jpg
055 To fall from the ox onto the rear end of an ass(fr)(nl) To fall on hard times Upper middle NP-35.jpg
056 To kiss the ring of the door (fr)(nl) To be obsequious Upper middle NP-37.jpg
057 To wipe one's backside on the door (nl) To treat something lightly Upper middle NP-36.jpg
058 To go around shouldering a burden (fr) (nl) To imagine that things are worse than they are Upper middle NP-36.jpg
059 One beggar pities the other standing in front of the door(nl) Being afraid for competition Upper middle NP-91.jpg
060 To fish behind the net (fr)(nl) To miss an opportunity Middle NP-47.jpg
061 Sharks eat smaller fish (fr)(nl) Anything people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance Middle NP-48.jpg
062 To be unable to see the sun shine on the water(fr)(nl) To be jealous of another's success Middle NP-60.jpg
063 It hangs like a privy over a ditch (fr)(nl) It is obvious Middle NP-112.jpg
064 Anybody can see through an oak plank if there is a hole in it (fr)(nl) There is no point in stating the obvious Middle NP-45.jpg
065 They both crap through the same hole (fr)(nl) They are inseparable comrades Middle NP-46.jpg
066 To throw one's money into the water(fr)(nl) To waste one's money Middle NP-61.jpg
067 A wall with cracks will soon collapse(fr)(nl) Anything poorly managed will soon fail Middle right NP-93.jpg
068 To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze(fr)(nl) To take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others Middle right NP-44.jpg
069 To drag the block(fr)(nl) To be deceived by a lover or to work at a pointless task Upper right NP-50.jpg
070 Fear makes the old woman trot(fr)(nl) An unexpected event can reveal unknown qualities Upper right NP-49.jpg
071 Horse droppings are not figs (fr)(nl) Do not be fooled by appearances Upper right NP-53.jpg
072 If the blind lead the blind both will fall in the ditch(fr)(nl) There is no point in being guided by others who are equally ignorant Upper right NP-51.jpg
073 The journey is not yet over when one can discern the church and steeple (fr)(nl) Do not give up until the task is fully complete Upper right NP-52.jpg
074 Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun(nl) Nothing can be hidden forever Upper right NP-111.jpg
075 To keep one's eye on the sail(fr)(nl) To stay alert, be wary Upper right NP-54.jpg
076 To crap on the gallows(fr)(nl) To be undeterred by any penalty Upper right NP-55.jpg
077 Where the carcass is, there fly the crows(fr)(nl) If there's something to be gained, everyone hurries in front Upper right NP-113.jpg
078 It is easy to sail before the wind(fr)(nl) If conditions are favourable it is not difficult to achieve one's goal Upper right NP-54.jpg
079 Who knows why geese go barefoot?(fr)(nl) There is a reason for everything, though it may not be obvious Upper right NP-56.jpg
080 If I am not meant to be their keeper, I will let geese be geese Do not interfere in matters that are not your concern Upper right NP-56.jpg
081 To see bears dancing[note 2](fr)(nl) To be starving Right NP-57.jpg
082 Wild bears prefer each other's company[note 2](nl) Peers get along better with each other than with outsiders Right NP-57.jpg
083 To throw one's cowl over the fence(fr)(nl) To discard something without knowing whether it will be required later Right NP-66.jpg
084 It is ill to swim against the current(fr)(nl) It is difficult to oppose the general opinion Right NP-65.jpg
085 The pitcher goes to the water until it finally breaks(fr)(nl) Everything has its limitations Right NP-95.jpg
086 The broadest straps are cut from someone else's leather (fr)(nl) One is quick to another's money. Right NP-67.jpg
087 To hold an eel by the tail(fr)(nl) To undertake a difficult task (Compare: "Catch a tiger by the tail") Right NP-62.jpg
088 To fall through the basket(fr)(nl) To have your deception uncovered Right NP-59.jpg
089 To be suspended between heaven and earth(fr)(nl) To be in an awkward situation Right NP-59.jpg
090 To keep the hen's egg and let the goose's egg go(fr)(nl) To make a bad decision Right NP-63.jpg
091 To yawn against the oven(fr)(nl) To attempt more than one can manage Lower right NP-64.jpg
092 To be barely able to reach from one loaf to another(fr)(nl) To have difficulty living within budget Lower right NP-69.jpg
093 A hoe without a handle(fr)(nl) Probably something useless[note 3] Lower right NP-96.jpg
094 To look for the hatchet(fr)(nl) To try to find an excuse Lower right NP-71.jpg
095 Here he is with his lantern(fr)(nl) To finally have an opportunity to show a talent Lower right NP-71.jpg
096 A hatchet with a handle(fr)(nl) Probably signifies "the whole thing"[note 3] Lower right NP-97.jpg
097 He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again(fr)(nl) Once something is done it cannot be undone (Compare: "Don't cry over spilt milk") Lower right NP-70.jpg
098 To put a spoke through someone's wheel(fr)(nl) To put up an obstacle, to destroy someone's plans Lower right NP-73.jpg
099 Love is on the side where the money bag hangs(fr)(nl) Love can be bought Lower right NP-107.jpg
100 To pull to get the longest end(fr)(nl) To attempt to get the advantage Lower right NP-74.jpg
101 To stand in one's own light(fr)(nl) To behave contrarily to one's own happiness or advantage Lower right NP-72.jpg
102 No one looks for others in the oven who has not been in there himself(fr)(nl) To imagine wickedness in others is a sign of wickedness in oneself Lower right NP-72.jpg
103 To have the world spinning on one's thumb(fr)(nl) To have every advantage (Compare: "To have the world in the palm of your hand") Lower right NP-85.jpg
104 To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ(fr)(nl) To hide deceit under a veneer of Christian piety Lower right NP-58.jpg
105 To have to stoop to get on in the world(fr)(nl) To succeed one must be willing to make sacrifices Lower right NP-84.jpg
106 To cast roses before swine(fr)(nl) To waste effort on the unworthy Lower middle NP-79.jpg
107 To fill the well after the calf has already drowned(fr)(nl) To take action only after a disaster (Compare: "Shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted") Lower middle NP-75.jpg
108 To be as gentle as a lamb(fr)(nl) Someone who is exceptionally calm or gentle Lower middle NP-101.jpg
109 She puts the blue cloak on her husband(fr)(nl) She deceives him Lower middle NP-76.jpg
110 Watch out that a black dog does not come in between(fr)(nl) Mind that things don't go wrong Lower middle NP-110.jpg
111 One winds on the distaff what the other spins(fr)(nl) Both spread gossip Lower middle NP-77.jpg
112 To carry the day out in baskets(fr)(nl) To waste one's time (Compare: "to carry coals to Newcastle" and "to sell sand in the desert") Middle NP-78.jpg
113 To hold a candle to the Devil(fr)(nl) To flatter and make friends indiscriminately Middle NP-80.jpg
114 To confess to the Devil(fr)(nl) To reveal secrets to one's enemy Middle NP-81.jpg
115 The pig is stabbed through the belly(fr)(nl) A foregone conclusion or what is done can not be undone Middle NP-83.jpg
116 Two dogs over one bone seldom agree(fr)(nl) To argue over a single point Middle NP-82.jpg
117 When two dogs fight out who gets the bone,the third one steals it(fr)(nl) Self-explanatory Middle NP-82.jpg
118 To be a skimming ladle(fr)(nl) To be a parasite or sponger Middle NP-102.jpg
119 What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it?(fr)(nl) Beauty does not make up for substance Middle NP-99.jpg
120 The Fox and the Stork or The Fox and the Crane dine together(fr)(nl) If you trick someone they might get back at you[note 4] Middle NP-87.jpg
121 To blow in the ear(fr)(nl) To spread gossip Middle NP-114.jpg
122 Chalk up a debt(fr)(nl) To owe someone a favour Middle NP-100.jpg
123 The meat on the spit must be basted(fr)(nl) Certain things need constant attention Middle NP-116.jpg
124 There is no turning the spit with him(fr)(nl) He is uncooperative Middle NP-115.jpg
125 To sit on hot coals(fr)(nl) To be impatient Middle NP-88.jpg
126 To catch fish without a net(fr)(nl) To profit from the work of others Middle NP-117.jpg

Inspiration for other paintings[edit]

T. E. Breitenbach's 1975 painting Proverbidioms was inspired by this Dutch painting to depict English proverbs and idioms.

A 2014 illustration from the Hong Kong magazine Passion Times illustrates dozens of Cantonese proverbs.[12][13]

In popular culture[edit]

The painting is featured on the album cover of Fleet Foxes self-titled first full-length album (2008).



  1. ^ The lighting makes it almost impossible to make out the dog.
  2. ^ a b The exact proverb depicted is not known with certainty.
  3. ^ a b The exact meaning of the proverb is not known.
  4. ^ This proverb derives from Aesop's Fables The Fox and the Crane.


  1. ^ "Pieter Bruegel". APARENCES. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  2. ^ Wisse, Jacob. "Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525/30–1569)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  3. ^ Rudy, Kathryn M. (2007). "Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs and the Borders of a Flemish Book of Hours". In Biemans, Jos; et al. (eds.). Manuscripten en miniaturen: Studies aangeboden aan Anne S. Korteweg bij haar afscheid van de Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Zutphen: Walburg. ISBN 9789057304712.
  4. ^ Erasmus, Desiderius. Adagia (Leiden 1700 ed.). University of Leiden: Department of Dutch language and literature.
  5. ^ O'Kane, Eleanor (1950). "The Proverb: Rabelais and Cervantes". Comparative Literature. 2 (4): 360–369. doi:10.2307/1768392. JSTOR 1768392.
  6. ^ Lebeer, L. (1939–40). "De Blauwe Huyck". Gentsche Bijdragen tot de Kunstgeschiedenis. 6: 161–229.
  7. ^ a b c d "Die blau huicke is dit meest ghenaemt / Maer des weerelts abuisen het beter betaempt". Prints. Nicolaas Teeuwisse. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  8. ^ Breughel Enterprises, 2001-2002 exhibition on the work of Pieter Brueghel II's copies after his father's works, Historians of Netherlandish Art review
  9. ^ C. C. Barfoot and Richard Todd, The Great Emporium: the Low Countries as a cultural crossroads in the Renaissance and the eighteenth century (1992), p. 128; Google Books.
  10. ^ Hagen 2000, pp. 36–37.
  11. ^ "Spreekwoorden". Middeleeuwen. Retrieved 12 July 2021.
  12. ^ "熱血時報 - 大粵港諺語 - 阿塗 - 專欄部落".
  13. ^ "Cantonese Proverbs in One Picture". 廣府話小研究Cantonese Resources. 25 February 2014.


  • Hagen, Rainer (2000). Hagen, Rose-Marie (ed.). Bruegel: The Complete Paintings. Taschen. ISBN 3822859915.
  • De Rynck, Patrick (1963). How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters. New York: Abrams. ISBN 0810955768.
  • "The Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel the Younger". Fleming Museum, University of Vermont. 2004. Retrieved 18 May 2007.
  • Mieder, Wolfgang (2004). "The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els". University of Vermont.
  • Dundes, Alan and Claudia A. Stibbe (1981). The Art of Mixing Metaphors: A Folkloristic Interpretation of the Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia Academia Scientiarum Fennica. ISBN 9514104242.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]