More about Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus has all the elements of an idyllic country landscape: the farmer ploughing, the sheep grazing, and the son of an inventor plunging to his death in the Mediterranean.

Daedalus was a Greek inventor with skill to rival Leonardo’s. When he took his nephew Talos on as an apprentice, the younger scholar proved a little too talented for Daedalus’s liking. Jealous of his pupil’s inventions, which included the saw, Daedalus pushed his star student off a cliff. Divine intervention saved Talos from certain death— the goddess Pallas turned the unfortunate genius into a partridge. A better fate, to be sure, but what mastermind wants to go from inventing the compass to being a literal birdbrain?

Every good Greek myth needs a gruesome end (Diana and Actaeon springs to mind) and Daedalus’ son Icarus was doomed to die in the name of poetic justice. King Minos had imprisoned both father and son in his Labyrinth, and Daedalus feared what he knew would be the Ancient Greek equivalent of an unending family road trip. Eager to escape, Daedalus made wings out of wax and feathers. When the duo tried to fly to safety, Icarus drew too near to the sun and melted his wings, plummeting to his death in the sea.

Pieter Bruegel drew inspiration from Ovid’s retelling of the myth, in which a shepherd and fisherman observe the flying pair. In the text, they believe the two men to be gods descending to earth. Bruegel chose to twist the story, instead depicting the villagers engrossed in their daily grind. The shepherd tends his sheep, the farmer works his land, and the fisherman casts his line. The image of a gentleman hurtling towards the sea with a half-melted pair of wings doesn’t even draw their eyes away from their work. Grisly death aside, the scene looks as tranquil as a Mary Cassatt painting. Children drowning? Who cares, I’ve got fish to catch.

Bruegel’s masterpiece has recently been called into question— and not because of the callous disinterest of the farmers. Studies on the artwork suggest that the piece may date to 1600, some thirty years after Bruegel’s death. In 1935, a second version of the same landscape was found, with added details like the image of Daedalus flying above the shepherd. Yet this version dates back only to 1577, still a handful of years too late to be a Bruegel creation. Other details in the works are equally suspicious: the sun indicates the wrong time of the day, and the ship is rigged incorrectly. So what’s more disturbing about the piece— its shaky origins, or the townspeople’s empathy deficiency?