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Bea Wildred
Introduction to Art
Professor Allegre
Capital Community College
14 April 1998

An Analysis of
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
[Second Version]

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, impresses the viewer first with the softness of sunshine and the bucolic pleasures of the countryside. The everyday pursuits of the three common men pictured — the plowman, the shepherd, and the fisherman — are being carried out in earnest, but with apparent ease and even pleasure. The shepherd lifts his face to the sky, seemingly unconcerned that his sheep are grazing perilously close to the seacliff's edge; the other two are a bit more intent on their work. The details of the foreground — the way the plowman's feet tread upon the neatly folded soil behind the plow — blend toward the vague but powerful treatment of the background's mysteries: the nearly obscured and whitened mountains, the majestic (if somewhat cloudy) city along the far shore, and the ruined castle in the sea with its cave-like entry.

The glow of the setting sun (its golden light nearly palpable in the sky) is mirrored by a splash of light in the far sea, but its main effect is in the foreground, the illumination of the commonplace activities of the plowman and the shepherd. The most vivid color in the painting is the reddish orange of the plowman's shirt, juxtaposed as it is to the natural earth tones of horse and dirt surrounding it. Even the shepherd's shadow has an ephemeral quality as the light hits him and his plow nearly horizontally. Whatever energy exists in the painting is moving toward the left side; the plowman, face downward, plods in that direction, as does his horse (whose backside also indecorously confronts the viewer). They move downward and to the left, toward the delicate tracery (like a Chinese screen) of the large tree on the left edge.

All of this occurs to the viewer before the central event of the painting (as announced in the painting's title) reveals itself to his attention: the splash of a pair of legs as the fallen Icarus plunges into the sea. In the lower right-hand corner of the painting, the painfully splayed legs, their delicate pinkness, are all that we see of the fallen mythological figure. They are caught at that precise instant that this symbol of human pride or hubris is about to disappear forever from the world's attention (ironically, of course, in a world where no one is paying attention). We are the only ones who will ever know. All of the energies of the painting lead away from this disturbing and important event: the plowman and shepherd, oblivious, go about their business, as does the fully-rigged boat (also moving toward the left), sailing away from the fallen figure. . . .

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