The Fall of Icarus

In the myth, Icarus flew too close to the sun on wings of wax and fell to his death. 16th century Dutch / Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder asked the question: what if no-one noticed?

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Pieter Bruegel the Elder? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bruegel the Elder was famous for, amongst other things, pushing back against traditional hierarchies in his paintings. You would normally expect the most important figure in a painting to be front and centre, and big so that people noticed. You would also expect historical and religious painting to carry more weight and prestige than images of the “common” folk.

In Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, these hierarchies are flipped around. Icarus is represented by a couple of tiny lonely legs sticking out of the ocean. None of the other figures in the painting notice – they’re all looking in other directions, busy with their own work and ignorant of his fall. In contrast to the Classical tragedy landing in the ocean, the most prominent figure is a common farmer steering a horse and plough.

It’s a beautiful example of the painting’s form reinforcing its meaning, and is rightly seen as a high point of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance. Unfortunately, it’s probably not Bruegel’s original painting, but a contemporary copy. Nevertheless, the painting inspired the poets W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, and Michael Hamburger, and remains the crown jewel of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

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