Pieter Bruegel the Elder (successor?) - Landscape with the fall of Icarus

by Alexandra Tuschka

We look from an elevated vantage point on a seascape, which is animated by a few people. The theme of the picture is not immediately recognizable, at first glance seems to be implemented here a genre scene, which illustrates the everyday life of the rural population. A farmer with his plow can immediately catch our gaze. He is in the lower center of the picture and can only be seen from behind. His intense red shirt makes him even more present in the otherwise green, blue and yellow landscape. Immediately behind him, a shepherd leans on his staff and looks up to the sky. The herd has made itself comfortable on the shore. If we follow his view and also look into the sky, we recognize, except a few dark clouds in the left background at first nothing special. We look further down to the right, where a large sailing ship majestically moves away from us and now finally reveals the motif that gives the episode its title: two bare legs still stick out of the water, above them individual feathers can be seen. Now the episode, which was inserted here, as casually, into the picture, opens up: Icarus, in his flight, came too close to the sun and fell into the sea.

It is the only known mythological scene of the painter, and yet here all elements that could seem mythological or fantastic are removed. There is also no Daedalus to be seen, as in a later copy of the work, which could have dissolved the pictorial motif earlier and transported it out of the genre-like setting. The fact that Icarus's wings would also be so badly affected by an already setting sun bears a certain illogicality. The authorship of the work is disputed. Since it was painted in oil on canvas, it argues for a contemporary copy after Bruegel, who himself always painted his works on wood. However, the insertion of the main theme as if it were a detail is typical of the Fleming. Also, the basic composition of the work and its design are strongly reminiscent of the pictorial language of the artist.


The episode shown here is described in Ovid's Metamorphoses. However, the narrative begins with the father of the unfortunate, Daedalus. The latter was a famous and gifted inventor, artist and scientist, capable of creating technical marvels. He had rank and name. However, when his sister apprenticed her son Perdix to him, the latter showed so much talent and skill that Daedalus felt threatened by him as a competitor. To get him out of the way, Daedalus pushed Perdix off the Acropolis. However, the latter was caught by Athena and transformed into a partridge. He was to be afraid of heights for the rest of his life. But Daedalus, recognized as a murderer, had to flee from Greece and came to Crete, where he built the famous labyrinth for Minos to keep the Minotaur imprisoned there. The Minotaur was a hybrid of man and bull, to whom numerous young people had to be sacrificed every year. It is possible that Daedalus helped Theseus to defeat the Minotaur. As punishment, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the great labyrinth. However, the clever head devised a way of escape. He built wings for his son and himself, made of feathers and wax, and admonished his son to always fly "in the middle". Not too close to the water, where it was too humid, but also not too close to the sun, where it was too warm. However, when both successfully left the labyrinth and flew above the sea, Icarus was seized with a sense of adventure and flew higher than would have been good for him. The wax melted and he fell into the sea and drowned.


This episode was mostly interpreted in such a way that Icarus would have been gripped by pride, and so the image motif often served as a warning and moralizing example. Ovid, however, narrates completely descriptively and without moral intention. Bruegel clearly adheres to the text by adding the persons described in Ovid as follows:

These someone saw while he was catching fish with a quivering fishing rod, or a shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant leaning on his plow, and marveled, believing that such as these, who could take their way through the air, were gods.

These three people are immediately recognizable in the painting, however, Bruegel deviates from the description in that none of the people actually get to see the suffering of Icarus. This is taken to absurdity in the figure of the shepherd gazing into the void. However, a partridge, as a reminder of Perdix's fate, is inserted by the angler. On the left side, well hidden in the bushes, we also catch the top view of a dead man. In front, at the edge of the picture, we can see a discarded belt and a sword. "No plow stops for a dying man" was a well-known contemporary proverb, which is probably alluded to here. The front objects could also be related to other proverbs, for example "money and sword need good hands".


The interpretation of Icarus as a tragic, but also haughty figure is often followed when viewing this work. The arrogant youth is contrasted with the peasants, as a positive example, who are humbly absorbed in worldly work. The fact that Icarus is depicted so small could then emphasize his insignificance in the world.

On the other hand, Daedalus could also have served as an identification figure for the painter, for Daedalus, as inventor and artist, likewise becomes the second creator after God, the "naturamque novat". In Bruegel's time, however, an artist was not a creator in our sense today, but was long regarded as a craftsman. These had to fight for the higher rank in the course of the Renaissance. Possibly Bruegel would like to show here the dangerous way of the artist, who becomes conscious of his creative power and uses it. After all, he must also succeed in walking the fine line between serving the demand and his own new creations, so that he does not "crash".


Pieter Bruegel the Elder (successor?) - Landscape with the fall of Icarus

Oil on canvas, 1555 - 1568, 73.5 x 112 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels


Copy after Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Landscape with the fall of Icarus

Oil on wood, 1590 - 1595, 63 x 90 cm, Museum Van Buuren, Brussels

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