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.
Fall of Icarus by Bruegel was a painting which was subjected to intensive scrutiny by art academics who wanted to prove who was the original creator of this painting. The work was carried out in 1996 and conclusions were drawn that it was unlikely to have been from Pieter Bruegel’s own hand though with no other artist being linked to it, Fall of Icarus will probably still remain within his portfolio for years to come.
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.
In literature, Icarus is often used as a metaphor for human pride and ambition. For example, in the Prologue of Doctor Faustus (c. 1588), Christopher Marlowe uses the myth to foreshadow the inevitable downfall of Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for superhuman powers: ‘His waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow’.
Pieter Bruegel (also Brueghel) the Elder (1525 – 1569) was the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, a painter known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. He influenced the Dutch Golden Age painting with his innovative choices of subject matter, as one of the first generation of artists to grow up when religious subjects had ceased to be the dominant subject matter of painting.
Thus the painting is highlighting humanity’s indifference to other people’s suffering. As Auden’s poem suggests, this composition depicts humankind’s indifference to other people’s pain by underscoring the ordinary events which continue to occupy our lives. Additionally, the traditional moral story of the Icarus, which warns against excessive ambition, is reinforced by the more humble figures who seem content to fill useful roles in life.
Bruegel’s depictions of “Tower of Babel,” with the version from Rotterdam on the left and Vienna on the right.
If you look very closely, you can see the spindly legs of a small body that has just fallen into the sea, while the country folk on the shore are just going through their daily routine:
Landscape with The Fall of Icarus, ca. 1590–95, Circle of P. Bruegel the Elder, Museum van Buuren, Brussels, Belgium
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?), c. 1560, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, detail