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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
  • Original Title: De val van Icarus
  • Date: c.1560
  • Style: Northern Renaissance
  • Period: Antwerp Period (1554-1562)
  • Genre: mythological painting
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Tag: Icarus
  • Dimensions: 73.5 x 112 cm

The painting is probably a version of a lost original by Bruegel, probably from the 1560s or soon after. It is in oils whereas Bruegel's other paintings on canvas are in tempera.

Though the world landscape, a type of work with the title subject represented by small figures in the distance, was an established type in Early Netherlandish painting, pioneered by Joachim Patiner, to have a much larger unrelated "genre" figure in the foreground is original and represents something of a blow against the emerging hierarchy of genres. Other landscapes by Bruegel, for example The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and others in that series of paintings showing the seasons, show genre figures in a raised foreground, but not so large relative to the size of the image, nor with a subject from a "higher" class of painting in the background.

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a painting in oil on canvas measuring 73.5 by 112 centimetres (28.9 in × 44.1 in) in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. It was long thought to be by the leading painter of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. However, following technical examinations in 1996 of the painting hanging in the Brussels museum that attribution is regarded as very doubtful, and the painting, perhaps painted in the 1560s, is now usually seen as a good early copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel's lost original, perhaps from about 1558. According to the museum: "It is doubtful the execution is by Breugel the Elder, but the composition can be said with certainty to be his", although recent technical research has re-opened the question.

Largely derived from Ovid, the painting is described in W. H. Auden's famous poem "Musée des Beaux-Arts", named after the museum in Brussels which holds the painting, and became the subject of a poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams, as well as "Lines on Bruegel's 'Icarus'" by Michael Hamburger.

In Greek mythology, Icarus succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father Daedalus, using feathers secured with bees wax. Ignoring his father's warnings, Icarus chose to fly too close to the sun, melting the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water just below the ship. The sun, already half-set on the horizon, is a long way away; the flight did not reach anywhere near it. Daedalus does not appear in this version of the painting, though he does, still flying, in the van Buuren one (see below).

The ploughman, shepherd and angler are mentioned in Ovid's account of the legend; they are: "astonished and think to see gods approaching them through the aether", which is not entirely the impression given in the painting. The shepherd gazing into the air, away from the ship, may be explained by another version of the composition (see below); in the original work there was probably also a figure of Daedalus in the sky to the left, at which he stares. There is also a Flemish proverb (of the sort imaged in other works by Bruegel): "And the farmer continued to plough..." (En de boer ... hij ploegde voort") pointing out the ignorance of people to fellow men's suffering. The painting may, as Auden's poem suggests, depict humankind's indifference to suffering by highlighting the ordinary events which continue to occur, despite the unobserved death of Icarus.

Though the world landscape, a type of work with the title subject represented by small figures in the distance, was an established type in Early Netherlandish painting, pioneered by Joachim Patiner, to have a much larger unrelated "genre" figure in the foreground is original and represents something of a blow against the emerging hierarchy of genres. Other landscapes by Bruegel, for example The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and others in that series of paintings showing the seasons, show genre figures in a raised foreground, but not so large relative to the size of the image, nor with a subject from a "higher" class of painting in the background.

This is a part of the Wikipedia article used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). The full text of the article is here →


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