|Artist||Pieter Bruegel the Elder|
|Dimensions||117 cm × 163 cm (46 in × 64 in)|
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 are the absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of humans, and this is no exception. The painting's 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 catalog human folly. Many of the people depicted show the characteristic blank features that Bruegel used to portray fools.
His son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, specialised in making copies of his father's work and painted at least 16 copies of Netherlandish Proverbs. 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. A number of collections were published, including Adagia, by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus. The French writer François Rabelais employed significant numbers in his novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, completed in 1564.
The Flemish artist Frans Hogenberg made an engraving illustrating 43 proverbs in around 1558, roughly the same time as Bruegel's painting. 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. By depicting literal renditions of proverbs in a peasant setting, both artists have shown a "world turned upside down".
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.
Proverbs and idioms
Critics have praised the composition for its ordered portrayal and integrated scene. There are approximately 112 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
|To be able to tie even the devil to a pillow (fr)(nl)||Obstinacy overcomes everything||Lower left|
|To be a pillar-biter (fr)(nl)||To be a religious hypocrite||Lower left|
|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|
|To bang one's head against a brick wall (fr)(nl)||To try to achieve the impossible||Lower left|
|One foot shod, the other bare(fr)(nl)||Balance is paramount||Lower left|
|The sow pulls the bung (fr)(nl)||Negligence will be rewarded with disaster||Lower left|
|To bell the cat (fr)(nl)||To carry out a dangerous or impractical plan||Lower left|
|To be armed to the teeth (fr)(nl)||To be heavily armed||Lower left|
|To put your armor on (fr)(nl)||To be angry||Lower left|
|One shears sheep, the other shears pigs (fr)(nl)||One has all the advantages, the other none||Lower left|
|Shear them but do not skin them (fr)(nl)||Do not press your advantage too far||Lower left|
|The herring does not fry here (nl)||It's not going according to plan||Lower left|
|To fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe (fr)(nl)||To do too much to achieve a little||Lower left|
|To get the lid on the head (nl)||To end up taking responsibility||Lower left|
|The herring hangs by its own gills (fr)(nl)||You must accept responsibility for your own actions||Lower left|
|There is more in it than an empty herring (nl)||There is more to it than meets the eye||Lower left|
|What can smoke do to iron? (fr)(nl)||There is no point in trying to change the unchangeable||Lower left|
|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]|
|To sit between two stools in the ashes (fr)(nl)||To be indecisive||Lower left|
|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|
|The scissors hang out there (fr)(nl)||They are liable to cheat you there||Upper left|
|To always gnaw on a single bone (fr)(nl)||To continually talk about the same subject||Upper left|
|It depends on the fall of the cards (fr)(nl)||It is up to chance||Upper left|
|The world is turned upside down (fr)(nl)||Everything is the opposite of what it should be||Upper left|
|Leave at least one egg in the nest (fr)(nl)||Always have something in reserve||Upper left|
|To crap on the world (fr)(nl)||To despise everything||Upper left|
|To lead each other by the nose (fr)(nl)||To fool each other||Upper left|
|The die is cast (fr)(nl)||The decision is made||Upper left|
|Fools get the best cards (fr)(nl)||Luck can overcome intelligence||Upper left|
|To look through one's fingers (fr)(nl)||To turn a blind eye||Upper left|
|There hangs the knife (fr)(nl)||To issue a challenge||Upper left|
|There stand the wooden shoes (fr)(nl)||To wait in vain||Upper left|
|To stick out the broom (fr)(nl)||To have fun while the master is away||Upper left|
|To marry under the broomstick (fr)(nl)||To live together without marrying||Upper left|
|To have the roof tiled with tarts (fr)(nl)||To be very wealthy||Upper left|
|To have a hole in one's roof (fr)(nl)||To be unintelligent||Upper left|
|An old roof needs a lot of patching up (fr)(nl)||Old things need more maintenance||Upper left|
|The roof has laths(fr)(nl)||There could be eavesdroppers (The walls have ears)||Middle left|
|To have toothache behind the ears(fr)(nl)||To be a malingerer||Middle left|
|To be pissing against the moon(fr)(nl)||To waste one's time on a futile endeavour||Middle left|
|Here hangs the pot(fr)(nl)||It is the opposite of what it should be||Middle left|
|To shoot a second bolt to find the first(fr)(nl)||To repeat a foolish action||Upper left|
|To shave the fool without lather(fr)(nl)||To trick somebody||Middle|
|Two fools under one hood(fr)(nl)||Stupidity loves company||Middle|
|It grows out of the window(fr)(nl)||It cannot be concealed||Middle|
|To play on the pillory(fr)(nl)||To attract attention to one's shameful acts||Upper middle|
|When the gate is open the pigs will run into the corn(fr)(nl)||Disaster ensues from carelessness||Upper middle|
|When the corn decreases the pig increases||If one person gains then another must lose||Upper middle|
|To run like one's backside is on fire(fr)(nl)||To be in great distress||Upper middle|
|He who eats fire, craps sparks||Do not be surprised at the outcome if you attempt a dangerous venture||Upper middle|
|To hang one's cloak according to the wind(fr)(nl)||To adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion||Upper middle|
|To toss feathers in the wind (fr)(nl)||To work fruitlessly||Upper middle|
|To gaze at the stork(fr)(nl)||To waste one's time||Upper middle|
|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|
|To fall from the ox onto the rear end of an ass(fr)(nl)||To fall on hard times||Upper middle|
|To kiss the ring of the door (fr)(nl)||To be obsequious||Upper middle|
|To wipe one's backside on the door (nl)||To treat something lightly||Upper middle|
|To go around shouldering a burden (fr) (nl)||To imagine that things are worse than they are||Upper middle|
|One beggar pities the other standing in front of the door(nl)||Being afraid for competition||Upper middle|
|To fish behind the net (fr)(nl)||To miss an opportunity||Middle|
|Sharks eat smaller fish (fr)(nl)||Anything people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance||Middle|
|To be unable to see the sun shine on the water(fr)(nl)||To be jealous of another's success||Middle|
|It hangs like a privy over a ditch (fr)(nl)||It is obvious||Middle|
|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|
|They both crap through the same hole (fr)(nl)||They are inseparable comrades||Middle|
|To throw one's money into the water(fr)(nl)||To waste one's money||Middle|
|A wall with cracks will soon collapse(fr)(nl)||Anything poorly managed will soon fail||Middle right|
|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|
|To drag the block(fr)(nl)||To be deceived by a lover or to work at a pointless task||Upper right|
|Fear makes the old woman trot(fr)(nl)||An unexpected event can reveal unknown qualities||Upper right|
|Horse droppings are not figs (fr)(nl)||Do not be fooled by appearances||Upper right|
|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|
|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|
|Everything, however finely spun, finally comes to the sun(nl)||Nothing can be hidden forever||Upper right|
|To keep one's eye on the sail(fr)(nl)||To stay alert, be wary||Upper right|
|To crap on the gallows(fr)(nl)||To be undeterred by any penalty||Upper right|
|Where the carcass is, there fly the crows(fr)(nl)||If there's something to be gained, everyone hurries in front||Upper right|
|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|
|Who knows why geese go barefoot?(fr)(nl)||There is a reason for everything, though it may not be obvious||Upper right|
|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|
|To see bears dancing[note 2](fr)(nl)||To be starving||Right|
|Wild bears prefer each other's company[note 2](nl)||Peers get along better with each other than with outsiders||Right|
|To throw one's cowl over the fence(fr)(nl)||To discard something without knowing whether it will be required later||Right|
|It is ill to swim against the current(fr)(nl)||It is difficult to oppose the general opinion||Right|
|The pitcher goes to the water until it finally breaks(fr)(nl)||Everything has its limitations||Right|
|The broadest straps are cut from someone else's leather (fr)(nl)||One is quick to another's money.||Right|
|To hold an eel by the tail(fr)(nl)||To undertake a difficult task (Compare: "Catch a tiger by the tail")||Right|
|To fall through the basket(fr)(nl)||To have your deception uncovered||Right|
|To be suspended between heaven and earth(nl)||To be in an awkward situation||Right|
|To keep the hen's egg and let the goose's egg go(fr)(nl)||To make a bad decision||Right|
|To yawn against the oven(fr)(nl)||To attempt more than one can manage||Lower right|
|To be barely able to reach from one loaf to another(fr)(nl)||To have difficulty living within budget||Lower right|
|A hoe without a handle(fr)(nl)||Probably something useless[note 3]||Lower right|
|To look for the hatchet(fr)(nl)||To try to find an excuse||Lower right|
|Here he is with his lantern(nl)||To finally have an opportunity to show a talent||Lower right|
|A hatchet with a handle(fr)(nl)||Probably signifies "the whole thing"[note 3]||Lower right|
|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|
|To put a spoke through someone's wheel(fr)(nl)||To put up an obstacle, to destroy someone's plans||Lower right|
|Love is on the side where the money bag hangs(fr)(nl)||Love can be bought||Lower right|
|To pull to get the longest end(fr)(nl)||To attempt to get the advantage||Lower right|
|To stand in one's own light(nl)||To behave contrarily to one's own happiness or advantage||Lower right|
|No one looks for others in the oven who has not been in there himself(nl)||To imagine wickedness in others is a sign of wickedness in oneself||Lower right|
|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|
|To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ(fr)(nl)||To hide deceit under a veneer of Christian piety||Lower right|
|To have to stoop to get on in the world(fr)(nl)||To succeed one must be willing to make sacrifices||Lower right|
|To cast roses before swine(nl)||To waste effort on the unworthy||Lower middle|
|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|
|To be as gentle as a lamb(fr)(nl)||Someone who is exceptionally calm or gentle||Lower middle|
|She puts the blue cloak on her husband(fr)(nl)||She deceives him||Lower middle|
|Watch out that a black dog does not come in between(fr)(nl)||Mind that things don't go wrong||Lower middle|
|One winds on the distaff what the other spins(fr)(nl)||Both spread gossip||Lower middle|
|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|
|To hold a candle to the Devil(fr)(nl)||To flatter and make friends indiscriminately||Middle|
|To confess to the Devil(fr)(nl)||To reveal secrets to one's enemy||Middle|
|The pig is stabbed through the belly(fr)(nl)||A foregone conclusion or what is done can not be undone||Middle|
|Two dogs over one bone seldom agree(fr)(nl)||To argue over a single point||Middle|
|When two dogs fight out who gets the bone,the third one steals it(fr)(nl)||Self-explanatory||Middle|
|To be a skimming ladle(fr)(nl)||To be a parasite or sponger||Middle|
|What is the good of a beautiful plate when there is nothing on it?(fr)(nl)||Beauty does not make up for substance||Middle|
|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|
|To blow in the ear(fr)(nl)||To spread gossip||Middle|
|Chalk up a debt(fr)(nl)||To owe someone a favour||Middle|
|The meat on the spit must be basted(fr)(nl)||Certain things need constant attention||Middle|
|There is no turning the spit with him(fr)(nl)||He is uncooperative||Middle|
|To sit on hot coals(fr)(nl)||To be impatient||Middle|
|To catch fish without a net(fr)(nl)||To profit from the work of others||Middle|
Inspiration for other paintings
This painting has inspired others to depict multiple proverbs in their paintings, also. An illustration from the Hong Kong magazine Passion Times illustrates dozens of Cantonese proverbs. The painting Proverbidioms was also inspired by this Dutch painting to depict English proverbs and idioms.
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- 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.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Netherlandish Proverbs (Bruegel).|
- Bruegel's The Dutch Proverbs, Smarthistory video, commentary by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker
- The Netherlandish Proverbs, Zoomable and Annotated
- Interactive mobile/responsive version of The Netherlandish Proverbs