Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

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Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1595

At first glace, Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with Fall of Icarus illustrates in great detail, a distinct perspective drawn from the ocean’s horizon to the stone pathway in the front, the birth of spring, and like in many other of Bruegel’s paintings, a peasant tending to everyday chores like plowing. However in the bottom right corner is the faint splashing of a drowning Icarus.  As Bruegel paints Icarus’ fast disappearing legs as a minor detail, the Northern painter strategically undermines the observers by challenging them to look deeper into that of the composition and reflect on the Bruegel’s intentions of integrating this tale Ovid into his 16th century painting.

For those of you unfamiliar to the legend of Icarus, it begins with Icarus’ ability to fly from imprisonment when his father Daedalus makes his son wings out of feathers and wax. While Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, Icarus ignores his father’s orders and nevertheless flies so close to the sun that his wings melt, and he falls into the sea and drowns.

In Bruegel’s composition, Icarus’ death goes seemingly unnoticed in the birth of spring as the farmer focuses on his horse leading them back to the city and the Shepard stares up into the sky. While the peasant in the bottom right corner seems to acknowledge the drowning prisoner, he does not take action. The artist has further utilized the setting sun and the laxness of the peasants in regards to Icarus’ death to symbolize the insignificance of one individual in comparison to the vast landscape.

William Carlos Williams supports this in his poem, which takes the same title as the painting. “…sweating in the sun that melted the wings’ wax unsignificantly off the coast there was a splash quite unnoticed this was Icarus drowning”.  His poem does not dwell on the imagery of the painting, and his lack of punctuation understates Icarus’ plunge into death. As Bruegel composes an ordinary life for the peasants, as they tend to daily activities that allow them to survive the best they can, Bruegel draws attention to the northern humanism in which there was less of a focus on education. The poem ends harshly to reflect the lack of empathy for Icarus in the painting. Moreover, he portrays Icarus’ death as a punishment for his self-absorption and defiance of his father’s respectful advice. With that, I believe that Bruegel has blatantly showed his observers the painful irony of death, in hopes to demonstrate the insignificance of selfishness in the midst of life.

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