The Significance of Insignificance

Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is an oil painting which incorporates the Greek myth of Icarus, with a forefront of a traditional sixteenth century landscape. The myth of Icarus states that Icarus’ father fastened wings together, fashioned out of wax and feathers, and warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, because his wings would melt causing him to plummet. His father, Daedalus, instead cautioned him to take the middle course, where he would be safe from the ocean spray and the scorching heat of the sun.

Caught up in the excitement of flight, Icarus disregarded his father’s cautioning and flew too close to the sun. He fell to Earth and drowned in the ocean, victim of his own foolishness. Bruegel contrasts character size, color, and events both ordinary and fantastical, ironically portraying the fall of Icarus, demonstrating that people in society have no sympathy for those who refuse to conform to social norms, and emphasizing the importance of those who contribute to society. Character placement and size gives a forced perspective of the main characters; the farmer, the shepherd and the fisherman.

The farmer is placed in the center of the landscape and depicted in a bright red shirt to draw the attention of the viewer away from Icarus. The shepherd is distracted and looking in the opposite direction of Icarus. The fisherman, although close to Icarus, is far more noticeable since like the farmer he is wearing the color red. The light used in this piece also adds to the perspective, the farmer and shepherd are basked in light, whereas Icarus is cloaked in darkness and surrounded by waves, diminishing him from the view of the observer.

In addition to distinctive color choice, Bruegel also uses character size to give a forced perspective with the focal point being the farmer and shepherd, therefore exaggerating their work tasks. By putting a more intense focus on the workers, a higher sense of importance is placed on them. With these techniques Bruegel is diverting the attention away from the fall of Icarus and centering the attention so it falls on the other subjects of the painting.

A deliberate contrast is placed between the ordinary workers and the drowning Icarus which is used to show that the workers have accepted their place in society and they will flourish, unlike Icarus. The farmer, the shepherd, and the fisherman are all performing honest work, meanwhile Icarus is trying to flee from his fantastical dilemmas, flying above the domestic world. Rather than living an honest life of hard work, as the rest of society does, Icarus tries to escape, and because of this the workers have no interest in his fate.

This differentiation between the humble worker’s daily life and Icarus’ fantastical issues, highlighting the inability of the worker to understand, and thus the capability to provide sympathy for Icarus. This failure to comprehend his personal hardships and the choices that he makes are a direct result of Icarus’ distorted self-image. Icarus is trying to separate himself from the working class by embarking on a flight, dangerously close to the realm of the gods. Plummeting back to the world in which he belongs, only to be constrained by social norms and societal pressures, which he cannot meet.

Bruegel creates irony by contrasting the amount of value placed on Icarus in the painting and the myth. Through Icarus, the myth demonstrates that one should not be overzealous about their ambitions, and the potential consequence of this oversight can be fatal. However, this painting is not focused on Icarus; it is focused on the people who are working diligently. The placement of the workers as well as the close attention to detail makes the subjects distinguished.

The irony continues with the title: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”, even though Icarus is placed out of sight, and the viewer can hardly see him. The landscape is the main focal point, making Icarus’ fall to Earth appear as more of an afterthought. Not only is Icarus being reduced, but the myth itself as well. Bruegel strips the myth of its meaning in order to portray the concept that people who work and contribute are worth more than individuals trying to escape the reality and the value of work.

In today’s society, many people are concerned with the idea of avoiding work, instead of accepting the social norm that is work. Brueghel’s painting encourages the viewer to reconsider this ideal because the focus is placed on the common worker. The average worker contrasted with the mythical Icarus who fell to his death, places a high importance on the menial work force. By emphasizing the work being performed, Bruegel is able to successfully demonstrate that workers are valued as members of society more than people who live their lives counterproductively and without contributing.

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