fall of icarus breugel
If you look carefully, you can see his legs as he drowns, in the far distance of the painting. They are dwarfed by the horse’s rump …
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is described in W H Auden’s famous poem Musée des Beaux-Arts , named after the museum in Brussels which holds the painting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Still, it hurts that this iconic poem about what for so many years was considered an iconic painting is no longer entirely correct. A friend suggested that by changing only a couple of letters in Auden’s title, the poem could be completely accurate: “Musée des Faux Arts.”
The Netherlandish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) is one of the most admired painters in the history of Western art. His ravishing and poignant “Hunters in the Snow” is one of the world’s best loved paintings. And he’s especially loved by poets. William Carlos Williams was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his 1962 collection “Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems,” which includes his extraordinary series that gives the book its title. (The “h” in Bruegel, once commonly used, is no longer considered correct.) And one of the great poems about art is W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (from 1938, on the brink of world-wide suffering), which is about a painting called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the museum in Brussels that gives the poem its title.
There is some speculation that Bruegel himself might have been a victim of malicious gossip towards the end of his life, although no specific narrative supports this theory. It is known, however, that he left this work to his wife, and Karel van Mander has argued that the gesture was a loaded one: “he was referring by the magpie to the gossips, whom he would like to see hanged.”
Oil on wood – Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria