The three soldiers captured here are a part of a band, aiming to raise morale amongst the troops who they serve besides. One plays a flute delicately, deep in concentration, whilst other has his back to us whilst playing his drum. The third member at the back hoist a large flag into the air, representing those who they are fighting for. War was a major part of European history right across the middle ages, as the fractured parts of this continent would fight for greater power and perceived security. Whilst diplomacy would avoid many battles, they would sometimes be unavoidable, and their frequency was reflected within art. Some artists have even specialised in this genre, whilst others have taken inspiration from its powerful themes at various points of their careers.
This painting is known as a grisaille, where an artist would use a grey monochrome look. It was a way of matching some of the styles of illustration found within scripture and was common across the 16th century in particular. Bruegel himself produced a number of them and this is amongst the best. He found pictures of soldiers to be popular during his own lifetime and could sell artworks of them fairly easily, as did a number of other local artists. This piece is believed to have been a part of the collection of Charles I of England for a number of years, prior to this group of work being broken up over a period of time. There is none of the horrors of war here, but also none of the overly played joy and success of victory, but rather more a focus on the individual lives of the common foot soldiers.
This piece can now be found in the Frick Collection, an institution based in New York, USA, which hosts a good variety of art and antiquities, with a particular interest in items from past centuries. You will find sculpture here in good numbers, mainly from the Italian Renaissance. There are also a number of North European artists featured here too. Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland by Whistler, Miss Mary Edwards by William Hogarth, The Hon Frances Duncombe by Thomas Gainsborough and St Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini are some of the best highlights to be found here.