Renaissance master painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is getting the first-ever retrospective at the Kunsthistorishes Museum in Vienna through Jan.13 to celebrate the 450th anniversary of his death. One may wonder why it took so long to honor a painter whose work was collected by kings. That's not the only question his story raises. But first, about the show.

Detail man

The Kunsthistorishes Museum is presenting more than half of Bruegel's output - 27 paintings and 60 drawings and prints.

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It's a veritable treasury full of his characteristically crowded panoramas of people and landscapes in meticulous detail – borrowed from 30 private and public collections worldwide.

Only the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused to loan its Bruegel - “Harvesters,” said exhibit co-curator Sabine Penot. But there's still plenty to see. As he told AFP news agency, “Never before have so many of his works been gathered in one place.” The other curator, Manfred Sellink, who directs the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, added that Bruegel's works are always popular because “he succeeds in portraying astonishingly precise detail with a literally cinematographic field of vision.” So again the question, why hasn't there been a comprehensive exhibit of his work before this?

Split personality

Another distinction to Bruegel's work besides the detail and sweeping vistas is that he didn't bare any bodies in his work the way so many other other Flemish artists did, like Peter Paul Rubens.

Not that he avoided depicting intimacy and couplings, but he did it in unsuspected ways, and often in comical ways, which brings up questions about his persona. While the Kunsthistorishes Museum exhibit material says that little is known of Bruegel's life, I spotted this tidbit in art historian Carl van Mander's Book “Schilder-Boeck” published in 1618 about the life and work of 250 painters: “He had two sides. He was a quiet and able man who did not talk much but was the jovial company, and he loved to frighten people, often his own pupils, with all kinds of ghostly tricks and pranks that he played.” By seeing Bruegel as a jokester, did Mander unwittingly provided a clue to why it took 450 years to give the artist a retrospective? Did museums not know how to present him because Mander saw him as some dippy version of another detail man - Hieronymus Bosch?

Rave review

The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones sees Bruegel's work in an altogether different way - as more human and generous than anyone else”s including Rembrandt and Picasso who he tagged too self-absorbed.

Bruegel painted you and me and everyone.” He clearly loved people and captured their variety. Citing “Hunters in the Snow,” Jones pointed to the skating children and adults, saying, “His paintings are worlds. Each one is abundant enough to look at for hours and keep coming back to all your life.” Given that, I'm still asking why it took 450 years to mount this show.

An answer

Curator Penot unintentionally answered my question by telling the AFP that bringing together so many Bruegel works into a single exhibition took six years – likely because exhibit examples came from so many different public and private collections He called the show “something of a miracle.”