Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a famous Northern Renaissance painting, currently on display in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. It is an oil on canvas painting, measuring 73.5 x 112 cm. For a long time, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was thought to be the work of the leading painter of Northern Renaissance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, however, recent research has regarded this attribution as doubtful. Nowadays the painting is generally considered to be an early copy of a lost Bruegel original, although recent technical examinations have re-opened the question.
The painting depicts the story of Icarus from Greek mythology and is largely based on the account in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It has become renown for its unorthodox treatment of the mythological story, its elusive meaning and its stark noncompliance with the hierarchy of genres in painting.
It inspired many poets, among which W.H.Auden, who described the painting in his famous poem “Musée des Beaux-Arts”. The painting is also the subject of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams, as well as Michael Hamburger’s “Lines on Bruegel’s Icarus”.
Who painted Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?
There is no general consensus among scholars who painted Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The painting was an unknown work until it appeared on the art market in 1912 and was acquired by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. The painting was not signed, nor dated, and its authenticity as a work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder has been a major point of contention among art historians ever since. Most notably, the work stands out among the works of Bruegel as the only oil painting on canvas, since he made all his paintings in either oil on panel or tempera on canvas.
More controversy arose in 1935 with the discovery of a second version of the painting, which differs from the 1912 one in only two details: the inclusion of the figure of Daedalus in the air, with the shepherd’s gaze directed at him; and the positioning of the sun. This version of the painting is generally considered inferior to the Brussels version. It was acquired by Daniel van Buuren for his private house, and has been in the Musée David et Alice van Buuren in Brussels since 1953.
For many years both paintings were thought to be copies of a lost original by Bruegel, as scholar have determined that the overall composition of the painting is certainly by the Flemish master. This would also explain the varying details (figure of Daedalus, the sun) between the two versions. A dating of c. 1558 has been suggested for the lost Bruegel original, while the copies are thought to have been produced in the 1560s. However, recent infrared reflectography of the painting’s underdrawing has revealed that the work in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts was originally a panel painting that had been transferred to canvas, which aligns it more with Bruegel’s typical style of painting on panel. A further reinterpretation of the reflectograms drew the conclusion that the technique and underdrawing style match other certified works from Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Furthermore, the copy in the van Buuren museum has been shown to have a technique that cannot be attributed to Pieter Bruegel.
Although not yet universally accepted by scholars, these recent technical examinations suggest that the work in the Brussels Royal Museums of Fine Arts was most likely painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder himself, or somebody who was closely familiar with his technique – most probably his son and student, Pieter Bruegel the Younger. The van Buuren version is considered be an early copy by an unknown artist.
What is Depicted in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder?
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus depicts an expansive landscape, diagonally extending from the left front towards the setting sun on the right. It features several separated figures attending to their daily duties in the foreground, while the background opens up to a sweeping panorama of the sea. The most prominent figure in the foreground is a farmer, ploughing the earth. On a plane below below him, a sheep shepherd is leaning on his stick, while absent-mindedly looking upwards. Below by the sea, a fisherman sits by the water.
The rustic scene with the daily life and activities of the farmers in the foreground gives way to a prodigious landscape that expands across the green water of the sea, diagonally from the fisherman towards the horizon. A prominent and meticulously painted Portuguese ship is sailing towards the port of the city on the left side of the bay. A small island with a cave is visible close to the shore.
On the right side of the bay there is another flat island and a palace on the rocks by the shore. In the far distance, on line with the horizon, a mountain or a volcano is visible, while the sun is setting into the vanishing point of the painting.
What is the Meaning of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder?
The meaning of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus has for a long time eluded scholars as Bruegel’s unordinary way of handling the mythological story opens the painting to many interpretations. Looking at the painting, the story it depicts almost eludes the spectator, as the most important details are nowhere nearly as prominent as in the traditional handling of the mythological subject.
The painting’s subject is based on the most famous account of the story of Icarus and Daedalus, as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. In his retelling of the Greek myth, King Minos imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus on the island of Crete. Looking for a way to escape, Daedalus constructs wings on their shoulders using feathers secured with bees wax. Daedalus warns his son to not fly to high or too low. However, once they escape the island and fly away, Icarus ignores his father’s warnings and flies to close to the sun. The bees wax holding his wings together melts and Icarus falls into the sea and drowns.
Traditionally, the flight and fall of Icarus and Daedalus would hold a prominent place in the composition of a painting that tells their story. However, Bruegel places the key moment that gives clue to the story to the very edge of the painting, where, above the fisherman on the very right side of the composition, we see a pair of white legs disappearing into the water – the drowning Icarus.
Once the central character of the myth is noticed, other details of the painting begin to align with Ovid’s account. For example, the poet mentions that Icarus’s fall was witnessed by all three figures that appear on the painting: the ploughman, the shepherd and the fisherman. In his account, they were captivated by the sight of flying father and falling son in the sky. Additionally, the rocky island on the left side of the painting recalls the island of Crete where Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned and escaped from. Lastly, the partridge bird, sitting on a branch above the fisherman, recalls an earlier story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Daedalus, a master craftsman, is tasked with educating his 12 year old nephew, Talos. The young man however, turns out to have even more talent and is even more innovative than his master. Jealous, Daedalus pushes him from the top of a sacred citadel, but Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, intervenes and transforms the child into a partridge. Later in their story, when Daedalus is burying Icarus, Talos, as the partridge, re-appears, making joyful noises and cackling at the sight of the uncle who almost murdered him, being punished with the death of his son. In this way, several smaller motifs from different sections from Ovid’s story are brought together in the painting.
The missing figure of flying Daedalus, a crucial part of the myth, has been a puzzling aspect regarding the meaning of the painting. Icarus’s father is traditionally depicted flying in the sky, as the witness to his son’s fall. Interestingly, the van Buuren version of the painting, considered to be an early copy of the original, contains the flying figure of Daedalus in the very upper edge, so that the sheep shepherd is looking directly at him. This detail changes the meaning of the painting and aligns it more with Ovid’s account of the myth, where the three mentioned figures – the ploughman, the shepherd and the fisherman – all stop with their activities, mesmerised by the sight of father and son flying in the sky.
Since the question of the attribution of the painting has not been definitively solved by scholars, no general consensus exists on whether the flying Daedalus was present in the original composition by Bruegel, or he was added by the copy painter, perhaps to make the mythological story more explicit. Scholars generally discuss Bruegel’s digression from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – the absence of Daedalus and the lack of notice from the peasants – as deliberate devices by the artist. These two critical deviations from the traditional telling of the myth play a key role in understanding the meaning of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus painting.
Analysis of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Interpretation of Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is elusive and has puzzled scholars for decades. Although the title of the painting states the mythological subject, the artist has diminished the significance of the story by minimizing any explicit depictions of the myth. Traditionally, images of Icarus’s fall include both his father Daedalus, still in flight, and Icarus already falling. In Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the myth is present through a variety of details from Ovid’s poem, yet these could all easily escape the spectator’s eye. It is a painting with a mythological subject, but hidden within an ordinary landscape scene that opens a variety of interpretations and lens of analysis.
Bruegel also produced a series of prints depicting mythological subjects – the story of Icarus and Daedalus included – that interestingly contrasts the handling of the mythological subject in comparison to the painting. The mythological figures are equally minimized within an expansive landscape and the flight and fall of Daedalus and Icarus in the sky plays against a backdrop of an expansive river landscape. Scholars have suggested that the print demonstrates a different way of handling the myth and a crucial difference to the Beaux-Arts work. Where the print depicts the thrilling sight in the sky, the painting shows some moments after, and depicts the more ordinary pitiful fall and death.
One main interpretation of the painting sees the chosen moment in Bruegel’s painting as a deliberate device that articulates a certain apathy of the world towards Icarus. The theme of apathy is further articulated by the inattentiveness of human figures, which contrasts the traditional telling of the myth.
Humanity’s Indifference to suffering
A key clue in interpreting the painting is the artists’s conscious decision to include the three human figures mentioned by Ovid – the plougman, the shepherd and the fisherman -, but deliberately skewing from the Classical source when it comes to their reaction to the fall. Bruegel follows Ovid’d account, even including minor details such as the partridge, the tension of the fisherman’s line or the green colour of the sea, but the attitudes the figures express towards the fall are the reverse of how it was described by Ovid. Instead of being mesmerized by the sight in the sky and stopping with their activities, they seem completely oblivious to Icarus’s flight.
One of the main interpretations of the painting, also popularized by Auden’s poem, sees the attitudes of the three figures towards the circumstances of Icarus’s death as the expression of man’s indifference towards suffering and the passing of others. Death is an ordinary component of the everyday and Bruegel is acknowledging that despite it, daily life continues to go on. On this theme, the painting has been brought in connection with a well-known Flemish proverb, which Bruegel’s painting might be referencing – “No plough stops for a dying man”, recorded as early as 1604.
Scholars have also noted that in line with this reading, the exclusion of the figure of Daedalus in the sky is a deliberate device of making the theme of apathy towards the dying Icarus more prominent. Daedalus’s role in the story is that of the agonized witness to the fall and death of his son. By not depicting the distress of the father, the painting underscores the theme of apathy and indifference.
Moderation in Dutch society
Another interpretation of Bruegel’s Icarus suggests that the painting speaks of the theme of moderation and advocates for the acceptance of one’s position in society. This was a prominent theme in 16th century Dutch painting and thought, especially for the peasantry. In this reading, Icarus departs from moderation and oversteps his place in life. By placing Icarus in the water, instead of depicting him in the air (as he did in his prints), Bruegel stresses his pitiable death, as opposed to the exhilarating flight and sudden fall. The painting depicts the corresponding fate to the circumstances of his actions.
The virtue of moderation is reinforced through the contrast with the hard-working peasant, who cannot afford to stop with his daily labour. Scholar have noted that in Dutch society at the time, it would likely be understood that the peasants are doing the right and moral thing by continuing to concentrate on their labour. Daily labour was seen as an honest and worthy path to salvation, and the peasant should not be diverted from his tasks by getting distracted with the tragic consequences of Icarus’s foolish and extreme actions. The Flemish proverb “And the farmer continued to plough…” is often mentioned with this reading. It speaks of the necessity of farmers to continue working no matter what, because farm work cannot wait.
Why is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder important?
Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is an important painting that holds a prominent place in the history of Northern Renaissance painting. In art history, 16th century Dutch and Flemish painting represents a response to the Italian Renaissance, with northern artists re-articulating themes and developing new painting styles. Paintings such as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus were instrumental in challenging the established genres in painting. They also contributed to the development of new genres, most notably landscape and genre painting.
New genres and hierarchies of the Northern Renaissance
Whereas Italian painters were concerned with grand historical and mythological themes, artists of the Northern Renaissance turned away from religious subjects and focused on scenes of ordinary life and nature. These were, like the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, painted in large scale format and represent a blow to the established hierarchy of genres, that among others, dictates the size format of the painting based on the importance of its subject.
The hierarchies of genres in paintings were initially formulated in 16th century Italy and stayed more or less the same until the early 19th century. Later, this rigid order was particularly promoted by 17th century Academic painting. Within the hierarchy, the highest order of paintings were considered to be history paintings, which include historical, religious, allegorical and mythological subjects, and which would be painted in the largest format. Genre paintings, which depict everyday scenes, populated with everyday people, and landscapes were much lower in the hierarchy and would normally be painted in small format.
The composition and size of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus play with the genre hierarchy by hiding, or partially hiding, the crucial theme of the painting. At first glance, the painting seems to belong to the category of genre paintings, however, close inspection and familiarity with the mythological story reveal the image as the highest order of genres, mythological paintings.
In this way, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus combines several key elements of Northern Renaissance painting that developed as a response to Italian painting. It hints at the renewed interest in antiquity that characterize the Italian Renaissance, but minimizes the importance of the myth by placing the central focus on the surrounding natural world, and most prominently, the indifferent peasants.
Paintings such as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus also played an important role in the development of landscape painting. The painting belongs to a compositional type known as a “world landscape”, which was pioneered by Joachim Patinir and perfected by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The world landscape composition features a panoramic landscape seen from an elevated viewpoint and typically includes an expansive array of natural elements such as mountains, lowlands, waters and forests. The subject of the painting is usually a religious or historical narrative, but the figures that represent the story are dwarfed by the surrounding nature.
A defining feature of 16th century world landscapes is the use of three colours (brown, green, blue) to articulate space and depth in the composition. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus adheres to this formula by using brown colours in the foreground, green for the middle part, and blue for distance. The change in the hue of the colour palette in each part of the painting reinforces this clear and yet harmonious delimitation and creates an innovative impression of depth.
Other Artwork by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
- The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1559, oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
- Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1560, oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
- The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1562, oil on panel. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
- Landscape with the Flight into Egypt by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1563, oil on panel. Courtlauld Institue of Art, London.
- The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1564, oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
- Winter Landscape with Ice skaters and Bird trap by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1565, oil on panel. Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels.
- The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1567, oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
- The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1568, distemper on linen canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
Other Artwork of Icarus and Daedalus
- Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Joos de Momper. 1579-1635, oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
- The Fall of Icarus by Jacob Peter Gowy. 1637, oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
- Daedalus and Icarus by Anthony van Dyck. 1625, oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
- Daedalus and Icarus by Charles Le Brun. 1645-46, oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.
- The Fall of Icarus by Merry-Joseph Blondel. 1819, oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris.