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Icarus: entering the world of myth
Icarus: entering the world of myth

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4.2 A further angle on the painting

Although all these human figures have been imported from Ovid, according to Christian Vöhringer, Brueghel has produced ‘a pictorial cultural composition which comprises Flemish calendar motifs and there could well be a reference to the Athenian farmer Icarios and the spring constellation to which he belonged’ (2007, p. 107). Brueghel has painted a young man at the plough who might be described as an incongruity in that he is ‘festively’ dressed. Vöhringer concludes that ‘without the ploughman and his calendar significance the only mythological painting by Brueghel would be alien’ (p. 110).

However, Brueghel may not be entirely distancing himself from the tragedy of Icarus. The painter produced several drawings and prints that relate to ‘the artist’ and he had a complicated relationship with sixteenth-century humanist traditions. He might have been drawn to Icarus as an overweening craftsman with little talent and so deliberately portrayed him in an undignified landing because this would be a just retribution of misplaced pride. But Brueghel did also produce a magnificent sketch of Icarus free falling in clear space which shows him as a muscular and heroic man rather than a weedy and callow youth.

For all these reasons the painter’s reference to this particular myth in this particular painting must surely be motivated by more than an attempt to elevate his art in terms of the hierarchy of genres.