Landscape and the Fall of Icarus

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The Greek mythological figure Icarus is best known for his tragic and life-ending plunge into the Aegean Sea (Oxford English Dictionary: “Icarus”). Icarus’s refusal to heed his father’s advice led to his demise. The infamous myth symbolizes “ambitious or presumptuous acts which end in failure or ruin” (OED: “Icarian”). Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s four hundred and fortyseven year old painting, “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” immortalizes this historically infamous expiration. “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” also inspired “Musee des Beaux Arts”: a poem by W. H. Auden that elaborates on Icarus’s death. Auden’s poem is split into two distinct sections: the first is a description of Brueghel’s wisdom, and the second is a description of Brueghel’s painting. Yet, a pervading theme of tragedy and disaster infiltrates both sections of Auden’s works. Throughout both the painting and the poem, a constant juxtaposition and reflection of life and death is observed. The intersection of “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” and “Musee des Beaux Arts” illustrates the fact that death is an unavoidable facet of life and that repose is no more significant than vitality.

In Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” the contrast that is drawn between the painting’s title and focal image illustrates the intertwined nature of life and death. The title of the painting leads the audience to believe that the landscape will contain a prominent illustration of the death of Icarus in the Aegean Sea. Instead, the large canvas that is filled with a beautiful seascape and common people performing common tasks shows the title character as a single, minute leg that is tucked away in the bottom right corner of the paining. In contrast, Brueghel uses a garish hue to designate a ploughman and his horse as the focal point of the painting. The dull orange color of the ploughman’s undershirt, the only non-muted color in the painting, creates a jarring contrast against the...
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