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The Original Hidden Picture Artists Were Dutch Masters

Finding Beyoncé is fun, but so are the minds of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymous Bosch.

"The Fight Between Carnival and Lent," 1559, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
"The Fight Between Carnival and Lent," 1559, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Public domain

The adult coloring book fad may be losing popularity, but another genre of play once reserved for children is gaining ground in the adult world: the hidden picture book. Where children have long been tasked with trying to find Waldo, grown-ups can now find Beyoncé or Andy Warhol. One new game called Hidden Folks takes the concept a step further: to find the targets of your search, you might need to pick bananas, dig a hole, or peek behind, under, or inside one of many spots in a teeming panorama.

In German, there’s a special word for these type of picture books: wimmelbilderbuch. Wimmel comes from wimmeln, which means “to teem” and bilderbuch means picture book. Wimmelbilderbuch: a picture book teeming with images and life.

These books have been popular in Germany since the mid-20th century, when they were popularized by the artist Hans Jürgen Press. Wimmelbilderbuch are not necessarily framed around the search for a particular character in each image; many have a looser framework of “disordered complexity,” which gives readers a chance to make up their own stories, writes Cornelia Rémi, a German scholar of literature. Rémi calls these books “a narrative threshold genre” for children, who can learn “different strategies of coping with the world and telling stories.”

Part of the wonder and pleasure of these games are the detailed worlds portrayed in each scene. In every spot, a tiny story is playing out, and even without finding the designated person, it can be delightful to explore such pages. Master painters from the Netherlands—Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, most famously—knew this better than anyone. Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, long before German illustrators marshaled this type of imagery to engage children, these painters were using the same techniques. Consider, for instance, Breugel’s Children’s Games:

"Children's Games" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1560.
“Children’s Games” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1560. Public domain

If you look at the details, you can find all forms of child’s play:

Detail from the center of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Children's Games."
Detail from the center of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Children’s Games.” Public domain
Public domain

But also some more adult details:

Public domain

And here’s his painting portraying Dutch proverbs:

"Netherlandish Proverbs" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559.
“Netherlandish Proverbs” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559. Public domain

Which has its own evocative details:

Hmm.
Hmm. Public domain
This painting was full of images portraying proverbs.
This painting was full of images portraying proverbs. Public domain
Zoom in, and there are strange details everywhere.
Zoom in, and there are strange details everywhere. Public domain

Bosch, who inspired Bruegel, had a much more disturbing world to portray. Here is his Garden of Earthly Delights:

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights," 1503–1515.
Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” 1503–1515. Public domain

Where you can find limbs aplenty:

An orgy inside a scorpion?
An orgy inside a scorpion? Public domain

But also dangerous spaces:

What is this monstrous thing?
What is this monstrous thing? Public domain

And disembodied ears:

Some parts of the triptych were meant to portray hell.
Some parts of the triptych were meant to portray hell. Public domain

It’s nearly impossible to describe one of these paintings. As Rémi puts it, “Any attempt at grasping a wimmelpicture exhaustively is doomed to fail.” Her interest is in the role such books can play in children’s cognitive development, but her assessment is also helpful to understanding why they might appeal to adults just as well. “Learning how to handle the demanding abundance of a wimmelpicture therefore implies learning how to cope with a complex world,” she writes.

We all need help coping with the overwhelming complexity of the world sometimes: even—maybe even especially—as adults. In a wimmelpicture, whether it features Beyoncé or Adam and Eve, it can feel like that might actually be an achievable goal.