Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1558, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 73.5 × 112 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
Breughel the Elder was a Belgian-Dutch painter from the middle of the 16th century. He was one of the first painters to really focus on people’s everyday lives, and his earthy portraits are in stark contrast to the commissioned-by-the-rich-and-famous, other-worldly (if wonderful) Italian work being done in roughly the same period by Raphael, Michelangelo and co. He had decided that life was the thing to paint and, like some medieval Orwell, gained the nickname ‘Breughel the Peasant’ because of his habit of dressing up as a farm worker and mingling with the poor at weddings and village events in order to study his subjects. We know he was probably quite politically radical – on his deathbed he ordered his family to burn his most controversial paintings – and some of his surviving work is clearly an attack on the church, by far the most powerful force in everyday life in this period. He could also be very funny; I went to see some of his work in Budapest last year and the intricate details of the reeling drunks, nagging wives, young couples chasing each other and misbehaving children were wonderful.
This painting shows both his sense of humour and his profundity. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a picture of everyday life, with the exception of the pasty, scrambled legs falling into the sea – this is Icarus, who built wings and flew too close to the sun in the Greek legend. Rather than grandstanding this momentous event, Breughel shows how little it means in the life of the world proper. The peasant still ploughs the field, the landscape still flows on, villagers still row in the bay. As W.H. Auden said of the painting:
‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;’
The painting reminds us of the enormity of the world and the insignificance of human acts. Like all his work, it’s very honest and true and strangely comforting. TH