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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558-60) by Pieter Bruegel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was an artist of the Northern Renaissance whose visually engrossing paintings offer a celebration of the common mass of humanity, in contrast to the pious religious painting which dominated much Renaissance art of the previous century. Born in what is now the Netherlands in the 1520s, reputedly into a peasant family, his work focuses on themes such as rural working life, religion and superstition, and the political and social intrigues of his day. These themes were tackled with an unmistakable, droll and often grotesque humor, an interest in the collective over the individual, and a healthy skepticism for narratives of great deeds and men. From the Dutch Golden Age painters of the following century to the Realists of nineteenth-century France and beyond, any artist who has cast their eye over their subject with an honesty debunking mythology works in the spirit of the man sometimes known as “Peasant Bruegel”.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1558)Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,
1558-60, Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 112cm
One of Bruegel’s best-known paintings, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus incorporates a landscape in the foreground with an expansive seascape stretching away towards the horizon. Closest to us, a farmer pushes a plow and horse. To his right, on a lower plateau of land, a shepherd tends to his flock. In the right foreground, a fisherman with his back to the viewer casts his net at the water’s edge, while close to the shore in the bottom-right, two legs kick in the air: a comically minute reference to the titular narrative, which therefore seems to unfold in the background of the scene.

This is one of two paintings by Bruegel, which depict the story of Icarus as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These were the only two works which Bruegel created on mythological themes, in marked contrast to his contemporaries’ focus on heroic narratives. The story revolves around the death of Icarus, the boy who wanted so badly to fly that he constructed wings out of wax and feathers. Failing to heed his father’s warning not to fly too close to the sun, his wings melted and he plunged into the sea. We might expect that this tragic denouement would form the focal point of Bruegel’s painting, but instead it becomes one incident woven into an all-encompassing representation of common rural life, the demise of the hero rendered almost laughable in its head-first ignominy. The composition is both irreverent and subtly philosophically resonant, expressing a clear skepticism for the bombastic mythological painting that had dominated the previous century of Renaissance art.

This work has been the subject of much moral speculation, revolving especially around the various figures who remain ignorant of Icarus’s plight, only the shepherd glancing up towards the sky, and not even towards the relevant spot. The displacement of Icarus from center-stage has been interpreted as a directive to remain focused on one’s own daily life. William Dello Russo has even suggested that the painting may illustrate a well-known Netherlandish expression, “one does not stay the plow for one who is dying.” Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was given its most famous twentieth-century treatment by the poet W.H. Auden, whose poem Musée des Beaux Arts (1938) considers how suffering and personal drama take place in a wider context of ongoing life.

Oil on canvas – Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium