Landscape with the Fall of Icarus has a slightly inaccurate balance between the character in the foreground and the background ships with the sizes not entirely what you would expect from such a skilled artist. Many believe however that this was a deliberate ploy by the artist to strengthen the power of the focal points of the work, and artistic license is an accepted element to many successful oil paintings right across art history.
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.
© Bridgeman Art Library / Royal Musuems of Fine Arts of Belgium
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.
The Triumph Of Death depicts a battle-stricken landscape, showcasing Bruegel’s incredibly complex style. Spend some time looking at it to really comprehend the symbolism behind it. Have you noticed that one of the two armies fighting against each other is composed entirely out of skeletons? The painting itself also features objects and activities that are intended to depict daily life in the 16th century, but an odd twist of fate has this otherwise tranquil landscape become a scene of chaos as skeletons seem to takeover the village. You can admire this artwork in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where it has been since 1827.
The painting showcases a large tower that is intended to mirror the Roman Colosseum, and serves to represent the biblical Tower of Babel – an architectural masterpiece described as a symbol representing the unification of mankind and their commitment to the Church and its religious doctrine. Yet as exhibited in Bruegel’s painting, upon closer speculation, it can be seen that this ideal passage from the Bible can be slightly askew, as Bruegel hopes to convey through his faulty tower. Of course, this was no mistake, as during the time this painting was created, the Church was, in fact, dealing with a schism between the Catholic and Protestant theologies, a dynamic that was ultimately visible between the home of Catholicism (Rome) and the Lutheran-Protestant religion arising in the Netherlands.
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.
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.
Besides making these gluttonous and volatile figures worthy of artistic representation, Bruegel’s decision to focus on scenes and aspects of peasant life also drew attention to the lot of the working man and woman for perhaps the first time in art history. The same motive would become more conspicuous in the work of modern artists inspired by his example, including painters of the French Realist school such as Gustave Courbet and HonorГ© Daumier, who used their paintings to make politically subversive statements on the living and working conditions of the poor.
In a snow-covered landscape, three hunters lead their dogs through a picturesque, sprawling village. Vivid silhouettes of winter trees dominate the left-hand side of the composition, and, along with the direction of the hunters’ movement, lead the eye towards the busy scene at the center, a happy gathering of people on a frozen river. In the background, buildings and snow-covered mountains recede into the distance beneath a blue-gray winter sky.