The Beekeepers

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1568
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin

The Beekeepers is one of Bruegel’s most enigmatic images, made with pen and brown ink in delicate and precise strokes. Three beekeepers diagonally dominate the space: they wear protective gear, masking their bodies and faces. The man climbing the tree on the right is sometimes referred to as a nest robber, in reference to a painting Bruegel completed in 1568. The drawing bears an inscription in a contemporary hand, probably Bruegel’s own: ‘Who knows the nest, knows it, who robs it, has it.’ Here, ‘nest’ could refer to the nests bees form in trees when they swarm. The universal appeal of the drawing lies in the fact that Bruegel evokes the tension between knowing and owning, between catching and being caught, a topic he often explored and which may explain the drawing’s universal appeal. Beekeepers steal from the bees, bees draw nectar from various flowers, and the artist steals from nature. While the keepers capture honey, they are robbed by the nester – or is it the other way around? In all of this, no one shows his face. Bruegel suggests trouble on a sunny day, complicity in humanity, pressing questions across time and place.

— Tine Luk Meganck, Assistant Professor, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Brussels

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