Although the primary source of knowledge about the life of Pieter Bruegel the Elder is Carel van Mander's Het Schilder-Boek of 1604, his account is sometimes untrustworthy and anecdotal. Relatively few facts have been added to Van Mander's biography.
Bruegel's birth date and place are unknown, but it is generally assumed that he was born sometime between 1525 and 1530, most likely in Breda. Van Mander's statement that Bruegel first studied with Pieter Coecke van Aelst of Antwerp is not documented; there is, however, some visual evidence that Bruegel was aware of Coecke's art. A recently discovered document indicates that in 1550 Bruegel was working in Mechelen in the shop of Claude Dorizi on an altarpiece for the church of Saint Rombaut. Although the altarpiece is lost and Bruegel worked only on the exterior wings, he would have been trained in the technique of painting on linen, a speciality of the city, which he used in some of his later works.
In 1551 Bruegel became a master in the guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp. Almost immediately thereafter he set off for Italy. Drawings with Italian motifs are dated 1552, and by 1553 the artist was in Rome, where he worked with the miniaturist Giulio Clovio. He seems also to have visited Naples and traveled through the Alps, returning to Antwerp sometime in 1554. In 1555 Bruegel began to provide the Antwerp artist and publisher Hieronymus Cock with designs for prints; their close association and friendship continued until Bruegel's death.
The artist seems to have stayed in Antwerp until 1563. In 1563 he married Pieter Coecke's daughter Mayken and moved to Brussels. Bruegel worked in Brussels until his death on 9 September 1569. His two sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564/1565-1638) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), were artists. [Hand, John Oliver, and Martha Wolff. Early Netherlandish Painting. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1986: 27-28.]
Stridbeck, Carl Gustaf. Bruegelstudien. Stockholm, 1956.
Grossmann, Fritz. "Bruegel, Pieter the Elder." Encyclopedia of World Art. 16 vols. New York, Toronto, and London, 1959-83: 2(1960):cols. 632-651.
Grossmann, Fritz. Pieter Bruegel. Complete Edition of the Paintings. London, 1973.
Bruegel. Une dynastie de peintres. Exh. cat. Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1980.
Hand, John Oliver and Martha Wolff. Early Netherlandish Painting. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1986: 27-28.