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For my artistic analysis, I chose to focus on the oil painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Flemish Renaissance painter who created the piece around 1560. Pieter mainly focused on making landscape and peasant-oriented paintings, illustrating a wide variety of regions, seasons, peoples, and time periods. For this artwork, Pieter drew heavy inspiration from Daedalus and Icarus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, utilizing the story as a backbone to present themes of ignorance, ambition, and suffering within the painting.

One of the similarities Pieter draws between his painting and Ovid’s story is how he depicts a beautiful coastal Greek island landscape with the sun rising over the sea. This setting is reminiscent of the one from Ovid’s story, where Daedalus and Icarus travel past many Greek islands during their flight. In addition, Pieter also added a few familiar characters that inhabit the setting, such as the farmer plowing the field in the foreground, the shepherd herding sheep in the middle, and the fisherman near the water in the bottom right. However, if you look close enough at the painting, you can also make out what seems to be a person drowning near the bottom right of the piece. This is Pieter’s depiction of the character Icarus, who dies in a very similar way within Ovid’s story. 

Setting aside the similarities, identifying the key difference between Pieter’s painting and Ovid’s Metamorphoses requires a little more investment in interpreting the actions of the characters in the painting. The key difference I found is that Pieter emphasizes the ignorance of the farmer, shepherd, and fisherman toward Icarus’ dire situation. In Metamorphoses, Ovid writes that the farmer, shepherd, and fisherman would look up in wonder at Daedalus and Icarus, believing them to be Gods able to fly through the sky. However, the opposite is illustrated in the painting. First, the farmer is shown to be facing away from Icarus and continuing to plow the field. Additionally, a neat detail that further emphasizes the theme of ignorance is that the farmer’s horse is wearing horse blinders, which do not allow the horse to see anything to its side or rear. This is so that the horse can only focus on the task in front of it and ignore any distractions. Second, the shepherd is drawn looking up at the sky at seemingly nothing, oblivious as well to Icarus. Finally, the fisherman is literally right in front of the drowning Icarus and continues to fish instead of helping him.

My personal takeaway from the painting is that Icarus represents suffering, specifically human suffering due to a mixture of personal ambition and lack of support from others. The ambition of Icarus to fly higher is what leads to his drowning in the painting, and his state of peril is only perpetuated by the ignorance of the bystanders around him not taking action. Thus, I think Pieter is trying to say that instances of great desire and ignorance in society can lead to the perpetuation of human suffering (which may reflect the culture of his time). If people are so ambitious that it leads to negative externalities and others are so content with their life that they don’t see anything wrong, then the problems will never get fixed.

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