BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (detail)

c. 1555
Oil on canvas, mounted on wood
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

This painting is generally thought to date from about 1555, soon after Bruegel had returned from Italy. It is the only picture with a mythological subject in Bruegel's painted oeuvre. The literary source is Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which the poet tells the story of the great engineer Daedalus, who constructed the Labyrinth for King Minos, and his son Icarus. Icarus, over-ambitious, ignored his father's warning and flew too close to the sun, whose strength melted the wax holding his wings together. He plunged to his death in the sea; here only his legs can be seen above the water, to the far right of the painting.

The artist has followed Ovid's text accurately. The ploughman, fisherman and shepherd are all mentioned, though a curious feature is the position of the sun. Sinking, and already on the horizon, it does not fit in with Ovid's account of its position high in the sky. The motif of the peasant with the plough is given added significance by the presence the corpse of an old man, only just visible, lying in the bushes on the left. This refers to the Flemish proverb 'No plough stops because a man dies'. The high viewpoint and the town glimpsed in the distance are recurring features of Bruegel's early landscape style.