The Hunters in the Snow

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For the short story by Tobias Wolff, see Hunters in the Snow (short story).
The Hunters in the Snow
Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Hunters in the Snow (Winter) - Google Art Project.jpg
Artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Year 1565
Type Oil on wood panel
Dimensions 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63 34 in)
Location Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

The Hunters in the Snow (Dutch: Jagers in de Sneeuw), also known as The Return of the Hunters, is a 1565 oil-on-wood painting by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Northern Renaissance work is one of a series of six, five of which still survive, that depict different times of the year. The painting is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.


The painting shows a wintry scene in which three hunters are returning from an expedition accompanied by their dogs. By appearances the outing was not successful; the hunters appear to trudge wearily, and the dogs appear downtrodden and miserable. One man carries the "meagre corpse of a fox" illustrating the paucity of the hunt. The overall visual impression is one of a calm, cold, overcast day; the colors are muted whites and grays, the trees are bare of leaves, and woodsmoke hangs in the air. Several adults and a child prepare food at an inn with an outside fire.

The landscape itself is a flat-bottomed valley (a river meanders through it) with jagged peaks visible on the far side. A watermill is seen with its wheel frozen stiff. In the distance, figures ice skate, play hockey with modern style sticks and curl on a frozen lake; they are rendered as silhouettes.

Interpretation and reception[edit]

External video
Jäger im Schnee - Gebirge und Burg.jpg
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565, Smarthistory

The 1560s was a time of religious revolution in the Netherlands, and Bruegel (and possibly his patron) may be attempting to portray an ideal of what country life used to be or what they wish it to be.

Writing in the "opinion" section of Nature, art historian Martin Kemp points out that Old Masters are popular subjects for Christmas cards and states that "probably no 'secular' subject is more popular than ... Hunters in the Snow".[1]

Hunters in the Snow is used extensively in Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's films Solaris (1972) and The Mirror (1974), and in Lars von Trier's 2011 film Melancholia. It appears also in Alain Tanner's film Dans la ville blanche (1983).

Climate change[edit]

This is the most famous of several winter landscape paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which are all thought to have been painted in 1565, after an unusually severe winter, that has often been cited as the onset of a severe phase in the climatic period known as the Little Ice Age.

William James Burroughs analyzes the depiction of winter in paintings, and asserts, "quite wrongly", that this occurred almost entirely from 1565 to 1665 and was associated with the climatic decline from 1550 onwards. Burroughs claims that before this, there were almost no depictions of winter in art, and "hypothesizes that the unusually harsh winter of 1565 inspired great artists to depict highly original images and that the decline in such paintings was a combination of the "theme" having been fully explored and mild winters interrupting the flow of painting".[2] In fact wintery scenes, which have technical difficulties in painting, had been regularly and very well handled since the early 15th century by artists in illuminated manuscript cycles showing the Labours of the Months, typically placed on the calendar pages of books of hours. January and February are typically shown as snowy, as in February in the famous cycle in the Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, painted 1412-1416. Snowy scenes also appear in the early 14th century frescoes by Master Wenceslas for the Bishop's Palace at Trento,[3] and in a detail of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Effects of Good Government in the City and Countryside (1337–39).[4] At this period independent landscape subjects had not developed as a genre in art, so the scarcity of other winter scenes is not remarkable.

Winter landscape with iceskaters, c. 1608, Hendrick Avercamp

His son Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) also painted many snowy landscapes, though according to Burroughs as he "slavishly copied his father's designs. The derivative nature of so much of this work makes it difficult to draw any definite conclusions about the influence of the winters between 1570 and 1600...".[5]

Burroughs says that snowy subjects return to Dutch Golden Age painting with works by Hendrick Avercamp from 1609 onwards. There is then a hiatus between 1627 and 1640, before the main period of such subjects from the 1640s to the 1660s, which relates well with climate records for this later period. However the subjects are less popular after about 1660, but this does not match any recorded reduction in severity of winters, and may just reflect changes in taste or fashion. In the later period between the 1780s and 1810s, snowy subjects again become popular.[6]


  1. ^ Kemp, Martin (December 2008). "Looking at the face of the Earth". Nature 456 (18): 876. doi:10.1038/456876a. 
  2. ^ Earth Environments: Past, Present and Future, by David Huddart & Tim Stott, p. 863 (quoted), 2010, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0470749601, 9780470749609
  3. ^ Florian Heine, "The First Time: Innovations in Art", Bucher, Munich, 2007 at 33
  4. ^ Philip McCouat, "The Emergence of the Winter Landscape", Journal of Art in Society,
  5. ^ Earth Environments: Past, Present and Future, by David Huddart & Tim Stott, p. 863 (quoted), 2010, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0470749601, 9780470749609; see also this 1980 article by Burroughs in the New Scientist
  6. ^ Earth Environments: Past, Present and Future, by David Huddart & Tim Stott, p. 863 (quoted), 2010, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0470749601, 9780470749609

Further reading[edit]