pieter brueghel the fall of icarus
Fall of Icarus is the abbreviated name of this classic painting and features a stylish scene in which a large character makes his way across the foreground of the painting, with an elaborate landscape scene sitting behind him that contains a traditional harbour and sunlight glowing from the back. It is unusual for an artist of this period to feature characters in such a large size and within the foreground of the painting, with Pieter Bruegel himself normally prefering smaller characters in larger numbers.
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.
a parable on human aspiration. Daedalus and his son, Icarus, were imprisoned on the island of Crete. Daedalus created wings to fly away. Icarus, ambitiously, flew too near the sun. The wax holding his wings together melted and he plunged into the sea and was drowned.
© Bridgeman Art Library / Royal Musuems of Fine Arts of Belgium
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Conservators and curators know better than ever, through careful examination of brush strokes and pigments and X-rays, which paintings are the authentic masterpieces and which are imitations or copies. They can follow a painting, like a poem, from its “first draft” to its final, finished version, including painted-over areas from decades — or centuries — later. Oberthaler told me that, for example, one of the hunters trudging in “Hunters in the Snow” was a later addition by Bruegel, and that the crow looking away from the crucifixion scene in “Christ Carrying the Cross” was originally looking directly at the events — which in some way is further evidence that “The Fall of Icarus,” in which bystanders ignore the central tragedy, must have been copied from an original Bruegel.
In Greek mythology, Icarus who succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father, using feathers and beeswax. Unfortunately, Icarus ignored his father’s warnings, and he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, and he fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water at the bottom right.
“And the farmer continued to plow…”
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.
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.