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Big Fish Eat Little Fish

A work made of etching and engraving in black on ivory laid paper, laid down on ivory laid paper.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • A work made of etching and engraving in black on ivory laid paper, laid down on ivory laid paper.




Pieter van der Heyden (Flemish, c. 1530–after 1584)
after Pieter Bruegel, the elder (Flemish, 1525/30–1569)
published by Hieronymus Cock (Flemish, c. 1510–1570)

About this artwork

This engraving hauntingly illustrates the proverb that the big fish always eats the little fish. Starting with the larger-than-life fish at its center, the image teems with grotesque activity, as bodies spill out of other bodies and hybrid creatures walk and fly about. Pieter Bruegel seems to take a dim view of humanity here, one of disgust at its seemingly endless capacity to cannibalize itself. This is epitomized in the hybrid fish-person at left carrying off its prize, another fish, in its gaping mouth. In the foreground, a man directs a child’s gaze toward the scene, telling him to “behold” (ecce) the proverbial truth on display.


Currently Off View


Prints and Drawings


Pieter van der Heyden


Big Fish Eat Little Fish


Flanders (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Etching and engraving in black on ivory laid paper, laid down on ivory laid paper


Inscribed verso, upper center, in graphite: “Les grands poissons mangent ces petits / - D’apres un dessin de P. Brueghel reprouisant un composition de H. Bosch (Bastelaer) / - D’apres H. Bosch (M. Gossart) / # etat”; lower right, in pen and black ink: “B. 14.”; lower right, in graphite: “-7-”


Image: 21.7 × 29.9 cm (8 9/16 × 11 13/16 in.); Plate: 23 × 30 cm (9 1/16 × 11 13/16 in.); Sheet: 22.9 × 30.1 cm (9 1/16 × 11 7/8 in.)

Credit Line

The Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livingston Fund

Reference Number


IIIF Manifest  The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) represents a set of open standards that enables rich access to digital media from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions around the world.

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