... and the surrounding controversy

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (undated) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a true masterpiece.
It is, however, shrouded in mystery, and numerous questions remain unresolved today, particularly regarding its attribution. The painting therefore continues to exert an enduring fascination. However, the composition is so dazzling that numerous curators identify it as one of the famous painter's creations.

This painting, featuring a subject from Greek mythology, depicts the hero described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.
However, in the composition itself, the presence of the mythical hero is in the detail, as only the legs of Icarus himself can be seen desperately flailing in the air. In the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, Icarus, surrounded by a fine spray of water, has just fallen into the water. Around him, the rest of the world remains unperturbed, as if unaffected by his demise.

The painting was neither signed nor dated. It appeared on the art market in 1912 and became part of the collection at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in the same year.

Reading of an extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses - first part (2016/2016) by -Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Christine Ayoub, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, reads an extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses featuring the tale of the Fall of Icarus.

Reading of an extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses - second part (2016/2016) by -Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Christine Ayoub, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, reads an extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses featuring the tale of the Fall of Icarus.

Reading of an extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses - third part (2016/2016) by -Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Christine Ayoub, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, reads an extract from Ovid's Metamorphoses featuring the tale of the Fall of Icarus.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (undated) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


CHAPTRE 1. Iconography and composition

Hunters in the Snow (1565/1565) by Pieter BruegelOriginal Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

The composition of this sweeping landscape accented in diagonals is the first thing which seduces the viewer. A succession of planes creates depth in this Mediterranean-like landscape.

The plunging view is applied with a mastery which is typical of Bruegel's paintings. Hunters in the Snow is the most famous example of such a view.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (undated) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The painting harmoniously unites distinct scenes by a subtle change of atmosphere and climate. While the viewer can observe a seemingly rustic scene in the foreground, the background gives way to a prodigious landscape for viewers to admire.

The sinuous shadows depicted in the foreground tempt the eye into getting lost in the asymmetric succession of planes, taking a thousand detours on the way.

Christine Ayoub, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, explains the path that the eye follows across the composition.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (undated) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The change in hue of the colour palette used for each part of the painting reinforces this clear and yet harmonious delimitation. By using three hues one after the other (browns, greens and blues), the artist creates an innovative way to give the impression of depth.


In the painting's foreground, without a care for Icarus, a ploughman steers his plough with one hand and holds a whip in the other. As his face is almost entirely hidden, it is above all the striking red of his shirt which catches the eye. The apparent clumsiness of this simple and powerful figure reinforces its expressiveness.

The horse, equipped with blinkers, appears unflappable and treads its path by following the distinct lines of the furrows already drawn in the earth and doubled by the shadow on the ground.

To the side of them, in the bottom left-hand corner, several details carry, according to certain authors, hidden meanings:

Leaned against a rock, a bag which probably has seeds for sowing once the field is worked. Some have perceived this as a reference to the proverb "what is sown on rocks cannot grow there".

The presence of a knife and a sword on this same rock may be an allusion to human madness, in reference to another proverb: "Sword and silver require intelligent hands".

Finally, the head of a man lying in the undergrowth may also be a reference to the proverb "No plough will stop for a dying man".

Christine Ayoub, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the proverbs in the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (undated) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

In the middleground, through the undergrowth, a dark ewe stands amongst the sheep grazing by the sea. They are watched by a shepherd who is gazing at the sky.

This figure intrigues experts who argue that he is simply dreaming or meditating, or see the symbolism of the shepherd which would accentuate his central position in the composition.

As the eye keeps following the outline of the furrows it comes to rest on the fisherman. Engrossed in his toil, he pays no attention to Icarus flailing in the water.

It is this figure with his back turned and his line in the water, who invites the viewer to plunge into the second part of the composition.

The partridge overhanging the fisherman is a reference to a previous part of the Metamorphoses. Daedalus, responsible for educating his nephew, becomes jealous of his pupil's precocious talent. He pushes him from the top of a sacred citadel. Pallas, Goddess of Wisdom, intervenes and transforms the child into a partridge to save him.

The presence of a partridge, a common motif in works representing the fall of Icarus, thus brings together several sections of Ovid's tale.


The vessel in the background helps to give the landscape a predominantly maritime feel and reflects Bruegel's interest in ships and naval architecture, a subject which he masters perfectly and which we find in other works, both paintings and etchings, by the Flemish artist.

With its wind-filled sails and its four masts, the meticulously painted Portuguese-style ship sails towards the port, drawing the viewer's eye in its wake.

Half-way to the port, the artist has painted an island. Half-prison, half-fortress in appearance, it recalls the Island of Crete where Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned by Minos.

Next to this island, several sailing boats lend a greater sense of depth to the composition.

To depict the port and the surrounding town, the painter uses a quasi-impressionist touch, with several subtle pink and blue hues to hint at its presence rather than anchoring it in tangible reality.

A View of Naples (unknown - unknown) by Pieter BruegelRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Even the shape of the port, which lures all the boats towards it, evokes another of the Flemish master's paintings, A View of Naples.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (undated) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Behind the town, enshrouded in mist, it is possible to distinguish the outline of mountains. But the eye is drawn to the sun, the final catalyst.

The sun is disappearing over the horizon which is slightly curved, following a technique close to that of cartography, giving an accentuated feeling of volume.

The fact that the sun is about to set accentuates the ambiguity and the mystery of this masterpiece. Were Icarus' wings not supposed to have burned when he flew too close to the sun at its zenith?

Furthermore, the bright halo in the middle of the composition could indicate a second light source, this time a vertical one. These multiple light sources lend a somewhat surrealist atmosphere to the painting.

The supple composition of this canvas which draws the eye in a constant meandering motion which crosses the painting from one side to the other with no breaks or definite borders.

The diagonal planes which can be distinguished in the painting place the shepherd's face in the centre. The shepherd, situated in the middleground, makes the link between the main fields of the background and the foreground.


CHAPTRE 2. Interpretation

During the Renaissance, interest in Ovid's Metamorphoses, from which the passage on the fall of Icarus is taken (book 8, v. 215-240), is rekindled.

Such a revival is proven by the numerous new editions of Ovid's work which appeared on the market at the time. Throughout the 16th century, the illustrations from these editions are often reused and copied. They also become disseminated in several vernacular languages, thus also becoming accessible to artists who could not read Latin. However, none of these illustrations is comparable to this very personal interpretation.

While the painter takes the tale from Ovid, and all the elements of the story can be found within Bruegel's work, the composition which he presents to the viewer is a very personal version. He places the landscape at the heart of the theme. His Fall of Icarus is very far from being a faithful illustration of the Latin epic poem. Here, the drama has already taken place whilst the true action lies in the fisherman, the ploughman and the shepherd going about their daily tasks.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (unknown - unknown) by Peter Paul RubensRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

In comparison, Peter Paul Rubens's (1577-1640) spirited interpretation of the theme provides a marked contrast to that offered by the Baroque master. Rubens, who was very close to "Velvet" Jan Brueghel and knew and appreciated his father's work, advocates anatomical artistry.

Through very complex, even contorted poses, he accentuates the relationship between Icarus and his father. It is in this that Rubens's passionate piece contrasts with the more distanced approach taken by Bruegel.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (undated) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Why does the artist present the scene in this way?
What meaning is hidden behind this interpretation of the fall of Icarus?
Why make references to proverbs within the piece?
Does he take a moralist or humanist approach to the fall?
Is his view of unflinching nature optimistic or, on the contrary, does it call for a pessimistic view whereby all effort is in vain?

These questions are still and will doubtless remain forever unresolved. Especially given that, as we have seen, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus contains a series of anomalies in comparison to the text: Daedalus is not present in the composition, the sun is not at the zenith. Such elements thwart the work of historians wishing to establish the authorship and the authenticity of the work.
Some have seen the sun, and Daedalus's absence, as the work of a restorer. Others believe that the setting sun gives an impression of the immense distance between the sun and the earth, thus strengthening the impression of a true universe created by Bruegel.


CHAPTER 3. Contested date and authorship

In his analytical catalogue of the paintings and drawings of Bruegel the Elder, Manfred Sellink places Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, unsigned and undated, in the "contested authorship" category.
The authenticity of the piece was thrown into doubt by some experts from the outset.

Firstly for iconographic reasons: the setting sun (probably a later addition) does not correspond to the reflection in the sea and, furthermore, the vessel's asymmetric rigging is also an issue ; the ship would not be able to sail as painted.

Secondly for technical reasons: studies of the canvas have not provided a precise date (between 1555 and 1635). Due to tears and other flaws, the work was restretched several times. This work, carried out prior to 1912, when the painting was acquired by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, makes subsequent analysis on the piece extremely challenging.
To date, none of the technical tests carried out, including the most recent, have produced a consensus amongst specialists.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (unknown - unknown) by Pieter Bruegel (copy?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The situation was made even more confused by the appearance on the market of a second version in 1935.
This work, in a more modest format, is an oil on wood. It was thought at the time to be an authentic work by Bruegel the Elder and was bought by the collector David Van Buuren in 1951.

It is one of the jewels of the Van Buuren Museum collections in Uccle, where it can still be found today.

There are two key elements which differ between these two works:

- in the painting in the Van Buuren Museum, one can make out firstly, the presence of Daedalus, which seems to justify the shepherd gazing towards the sky,

- and, secondly, the sun is shown at its zenith;

Dendrochronological analysis (tree-ring dating) has established that the wooden panel dates from 1577 at the earliest, i.e. 8 years after the artist's death.

Some historians believe that these two Brussels versions are faithful copies of a lost original.
Analysis of the underlying drawings indicates that they were executed by two different artists. The drawings in the version in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are functional, whereas those in the version in the Van Buuren Museum are livelier and more spontaneous.

Furthermore, certain details in the Van Buuren Museum version (such as a boat in the central section or some elements of the landscape on the horizon) exist only in the underlying drawing in the version in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. This would therefore suggest that the Van Buuren Museum version is the more faithful of the two.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (undated) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (after?)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

In 1621, a work entitled Daedalus and Icarus is mentioned in the imperial collections in Prague.

There is nothing to tell whether the collections are referring to one of the previously described works or a hypothetical original piece, since lost. However, several original works by the Flemish master featured in the collection which makes it likely that Bruegel did produce paintings about this same subject.
Either way, the paintings preserved in the Van Buuren Museum and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are still key works which deserve a place not only on the walls of these two museums, but also in the history of art. All of these issues and debates between specialists are an integral part of this history.

Finally, this version of The Fall of Icarus inspired more than one poet, starting with the Anglo-American poet H.W. Auden. Auden saw the fact that Icarus' death went unnoticed as universally symbolic of the human condition. This famous poem by H.W. Auden helped to make the painting a widely renowned piece which continues to transcend borders.

“[...] In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

(W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux-Arts”, in : The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden, New York, Random House, 1945)


These two versions of The Fall of Icarus, featuring large-scale compositions teeming with revealing details and anecdotes, are a testament not only to the great technical skill of the artists, but also to their great originality, as is shown in the unique interpretation of the theme depicted. While these works remain shrouded in mystery, they are still a fabulous artistic and cultural reflection of their time.

Credits: Story

Jennifer Beauloye

Joost Vander Auwera

-Christina Currie & Dominique Allart, The Brueg(H)el Phenomenon, Brussels, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 2012.
-Manfred Sellink, Bruegel : L'oeuvre complet, Peintures, dessins, gravures, Gand, Ludion, 2007.

Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, Christine Ayoub, Laurent Germeau, Pauline Vyncke, Lies van de Cappelle, Karine Lasaracina, Isabelle Vanhoonacker‎, Gladys Vercammen-Grandjean, Marianne Knop‎.

A special thanks to Isabelle Anspach, curator, and to Muriel de Groef, assistant at the Van Buuren Museum, Uccle.

© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
© D-Sidegroup
© KHM-Museumsverband, Wien
© KBR, Bruxelles
© Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Roma
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan
© Musée et Jardins van Buuren, Bruxelles

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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