#FineArtFriday: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1560

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Year: c. 1560

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: 73.5 cm × 112 cm (28.9 in × 44 in)

Location: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

The story depicted in this painting, via Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia:

In Greek mythologyIcarus succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father Daedalus, using feathers secured with beeswax. Ignoring his father’s warnings, Icarus chose to fly too close to the sun, melting the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water just below the ship. The sun, already half-set on the horizon, is a long way away; the flight did not reach anywhere near it. Daedalus does not appear in this version of the painting.

The ploughman, shepherd and angler are mentioned in Ovid’s account of the legend; they are: “astonished and think to see gods approaching them through the aether”, which is not entirely the impression given in the painting. The shepherd gazing into the air, away from the ship, may be explained by another version of the composition. In the original work there was probably also a figure of Daedalus in the sky to the left, at which he stares.

There is also a Flemish proverb (of the sort imaged in other works by Bruegel): “And the farmer continued to plough…” The painting may, as Auden’s poem suggests, depict humankind’s indifference to suffering by highlighting the ordinary events which continue to occur, despite the unobserved death of Icarus.

What I love about this painting:

This is a wonderful painting, despite its disputed provenance. Pieter Bruegel the Elder tells us a story bluntly: Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax holding his wings together melted. He fell into the sea and drowned.

Bruegel’s earthy sense of humor comes to the fore in this painting as it does in his other works depicting Flemish proverbs. Always ready to point out humanity’s failings, the artist makes him look ridiculous showing us only his pale, thrashing legs.

In saying that humankind shouldn’t try to fly too high, Bruegel tells us to stop trying to be what we aren’t. He says that one should be content with one’s place in life.

The controversy surrounding this painting, via Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia:

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a painting in oil on canvas measuring 73.5 by 112 centimetres (28.9 in × 44.1 in) in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. It was long thought to be by the leading painter of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance paintingPieter Bruegel the Elder. However, following technical examinations in 1996 of the painting hanging in the Brussels museum, that attribution is regarded as very doubtful, and the painting, perhaps painted in the 1560s, is now usually seen as a good early copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel’s lost original, perhaps from about 1558. According to the museum: “It is doubtful the execution is by Bruegel the Elder, but the composition can be said with certainty to be his”, although recent technical research has re-opened the question.

Since its acquisition by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in 1912, its authenticity has been challenged by several specialists, mainly for two reasons: (i) the relatively weak quality of the painting compared to other Bruegels, although this question is complicated by later overpainting; (ii) it is an oil painting on canvas, an exception in the work of Peter Bruegel the Elder who made all his oil paintings on panel.

In 1963, Philippe Roberts-Jones, curator at the museum, and the Bruegel specialist Georges Marlier, hypothesized that an original panel painting had been later moved onto canvas, as was once common.

In 1998, a mixed team of scientists from the Belgian Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage and the University of Utrecht[7] attempted to solve the authenticity problem by a radiocarbon dating of the canvas that was supposed to be the original support. As mentioned here above, the conclusion of this dating was that P. Bruegel the Elder cannot have painted on this canvas. Later, in 2006, Prof. J. Reisse (Université libre de Bruxelles) challenged this dating on technical grounds.

A sample of blue paint taken from the right edge in 1973 was re-examined by performing analysis such as scanning electron microscopy (SEM) coupled to the energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX), which in connection with optical microscopy revealed the following structure and composition. From bottom to top:

  1. Canvas (from transposition);
  2. Oily lead white (adhesive);
  3. Thick oily layer with azurite (repaint);
  4. Chalk ground;
  5. Oily lead white with scarce particles of charcoal;
  6. Oily blue with azurite;

with layers 4 to 6 being original.

The presence of chalk ground under the original blue proves that this is a panel painting transposed on a canvas. The original blue layer is lead white with azurite containing a few grains of ochre and charcoal. These structure and composition match perfectly those found on other certified panels of Peter Bruegel. Moreover, it is noticeable that the wood charcoal particles are very peculiar, being very long and acicular, exactly the same as those found only in The Census from the same Museum.

Recently, a study of the underdrawing using infrared reflectography has been published.

Reflectography is based on the fact that the infrared light penetrates all colors except black. As a result, the drawing, mostly black, can be made visible. The interpretation of these reflectograms is of course more subjective, but in a global way, the drawing from the Fall of Icarus is not really different from other certified works from Peter Bruegel the Elder. This drawing is generally limited to a layout of the elements. Probably because the thin, weakly covering paint on white ground would hide imperfectly a detailed graphism.

A re-interpretation of the reflectograms in agreement with the other analysis suggested the conclusion that the work in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels is a panel painting transferred to canvas. The paint layer and maybe also the underdrawing have been severely damaged by this intervention as well as by two more relinings, responsible for the heavy overpainting. In the paint sample remains a fragment with structure and composition matching perfectly the technique of the large panels attributed to Peter Bruegel the Elder. It is therefore unlikely that this version of the Fall of Icarus might be from the hand of a copyist, except perhaps from P. Bruegel the Younger. Conversely, the Van Buuren copy with a different technique cannot be attributed to either Peter Bruegel.

Transfer of panel paintings, via Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia:

The practice of conserving an unstable painting on panel by transferring it from its original decayed, worm-eaten, cracked, or distorted wood support to canvas or a new panel has been practised since the 18th century. It has now been largely superseded by improved methods of wood conservation.

The process is described by Henry Mogford in his Handbook for the Preservation of Pictures. Smooth sheets of paper were pasted over the painted surface of the panel, and a layer of muslin over that. The panel was then fixed, face down, to a table, and the wood planed away from the back until it was “as thin as a plane may safely go”, and the remainder scraped off with a sharp instrument such as a razor. The ground of the painting was then removed by solvents or scraping, until nothing remained but a thin skin of colour, pasted over with paper and held together by the muslin. A prepared canvas was then attached to the back of the paint layer, using the same method as was used for lining pictures. When the glue had dried, the paper and muslin were removed by careful damping.

Credits and Attributions:

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Pieter Brueghel the Elder ca.1558 / Public domain

Wikipedia contributors, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Landscape_with_the_Fall_of_Icarus&oldid=963660790 (accessed August 14, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Transfer of panel paintings,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Transfer_of_panel_paintings&oldid=945009923 (accessed August 14, 2020).


Filed under #FineArtFriday

2 responses to “#FineArtFriday: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1560

  1. Johanna Flynn

    Brueghel is one of my favorite artists. As a writer, there’s this awe of flying with words and worry about flying too high and crashing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Never fear–you are not alone with that worry ❤