RUBENS, Peter Paul
(b. 1577, Siegen, d. 1640, Antwerpen)

The Fall of Icarus

Oil on wood, 27 x 27 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Architect and sculptor Daedalus had built the Cretan labyrinth for King Minos in order to imprison the minotaur. He too was then imprisoned in it by the monarch's order. Wishing to leave the island with his son Icarus, he made two pairs of wings similar to those of birds, using feathers attached with wax. Forgetting his father's advice, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax of his wings and falling into the sea. Daedalus watches his son's fall despairingly, unable to save him.

The Fall of Icarus is another of the sketches that Peter Paul Rubens produced from 1636 onwards for the decoration of the Torre de la Parada. In it he chooses to illustrate the most dramatic moment of Ovid's narrative, when Daedalus looks towards Icarus falling headlong into the void. The painter confers a highly human dimension to his work by representing the painful loss of a son. At the same time he concentrates on the movement of the two bodies, contrasting with the calmness of the sea and the mute intensity of the sun. Icarus is exposed in full light, whilst Daedalus' body is handled in darker tones. This play of light and shadow allows the artist both to place Icarus in the forefront of the picture and to insist on the vulnerability of his flesh. This sketch represents the destiny of man, as does the Fall of Phaethon, also conserved in the museum. Archive documents tell us that these two paintings with a similar theme were placed facing each other in the first room on the ground floor of the Spanish royal hunting pavilion. This strict placing forms an exception, as Rubens' mythological works do not appear to have been arranged according to any pre-established concept. The final picture was painted by Jacob Peter Gowy (Madrid, Prado), and is much more anecdotal than Rubens' sketch. A city is visible to the back of the composition, with two small figures walking on the beach, probably Daedalus and Icarus before starting their flight. Contrary to the Ovid text, which evokes a day of bright sun, the sky is cloudy and the sea choppy.