brueghel icarus painting
There has long been great discussion over the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus painting because it does not fit consistently into the career of Pieter Bruegel the Elder for several different reasons. Firstly, the artist used tempera on canvas in all his other paintings where as this was created in oils as seen far more commonly now. The mythological topic around which this painting was based would also be the only time that Bruegel would have done this.
The Landscape with the Fall of Icarus painting is believed to have been completed around the 1560s and there still remains some question marks over whether Pieter Bruegel the Elder was in fact the original artist but no other painters have ever been linked to it. The classic work can now found on display in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and is held within their permanent collection, being one of the museum’s major attractions.
Earth abides: the ploughman ploughs. Trading vessels go about their commercial business. Life goes on. The death of an unlucky aviator is of no more importance than the fall of a sparrow. Mankind deludes itself if it thinks otherwise.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1555) is an oil painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It shows the Greek mythological figure, Icarus, plunging into the sea in the lower right-hand corner.
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.
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 Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure…
Bruegel, who died about four years after Shakespeare was born, seems to me perhaps the most Shakespearean of painters — partly because his sense of humanity encompasses such a broad emotional spectrum: from comedy to satire and bitter tragedy (the “seasons” paintings alone range from the flirtatious young girls of “Haymaking” to the autumnal melancholy of “The Return of the Herd” to the wintry catastrophe of “Dark Day”). He gives us both the cruelty and the beauty of nature. His magical “Adoration of the Magi” may well be the very first European painting to show snowflakes falling. And his paintings offer the Shakespearean alternation between intimate detail and epic scope. There’s the poignant “Two Monkeys,” the Falstaffian “Peasant Dance,” and the cast-of-thousands “Christ Carrying the Cross” (which is displayed in this exhibit without its frame, so that we could see the thinness of the wood panel it was painted on and how amazing it is that it has survived intact). Both versions of Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel” — startlingly different (the larger one, from Vienna, more satiric; the smaller one, from Rotterdam, much darker and more ominous) — are shown here together for the very first time.
He had begun it with an appeal to his authority, Brueghel, before going on to describe The Fall of Icarus in detail: the farmer doing his plowing, the awakening of spring, the self absorption of life at the edge of the sea, and the small detail of Icarus’s fast disappearing legs. A crucial aspect of Brueghel’s painting is its perspective. The landscape and the action are seen from above– from the viewpoint, in other words, of Daedalus. The force of the picture is thus, I think, to move the viewer not only to recognize the unconcern for catastrophe inherent in the preoccupation of ongoing life, but also to register a horrified protest that it should be so. Perspective allows the painter to make this protest. How is the poet to do it?
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