Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

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Art & Literature

Ms. Haslach

Spring 2007

Writing in Response to Art

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Directions: First, spend some time viewing the painting, and answer the following 3 questions. Then, you will read a poem by William Carlos Williams that is related to the painting, and you will answer 5 additional questions about the painting and the poem.

  1. Spend a few minutes (around 5 minutes should be sufficient) observing the painting. Don’t feel pressured to notice every detail in the painting, but do pay close attention to the first details you notice. Write down, or draw if you prefer, those details in the space provided below. You can write a paragraph, make a list, or a diagram/web, whatever you works for you.
  1. Now, looking at your responses above, focus on at least 2 particular details you noticed. Think about or imagine the relationship between these 2 details. Are they related? Do they seem to fit together as part of a pattern, or do they seem to pose a contradiction?
  1. What do you like about this work of art (colors, imagery, the forms themselves)? What don’t you particularly like?

Now, read William Carlos’ Williams poem entitled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” on the following page.

Art & Literature

Ms. Haslach

Writing in Response to Art

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

According to Brueghel

when Icarus fell

it was spring

a farmer was ploughing

his field5

the whole pageantry

of the year was

awake tingling


the edge of the sea


with itself

sweating in the sun

that melted15

the wings' wax


off the coast

there was

a splash quite unnoticed20

this was

Icarus drowning

Background story on the painting and the poem: Icarus was a Greek mythological figure, also known as the son of Daedalus (famous for creatingthe Labyrinth of Crete). Icarus and his father were stuck in Crete, because the King of Crete wouldn’t let them leave. Daedalus made some wings for the both of them and gave his son instruction on how to fly (not too close to the sea, the water will soak the wings; not too close to the sky, the sun will melt them). Icarus, however, was obstinate and did fly too close to the sun. Doing so caused the wax that held his wings to his body to melt. Icarus crashed into the sea and died.

Background on the artist: Pieter Breughel lived in the first half of the 16th century in Belgium. His paintings, in general, have allegorical or moral significance. The Fall of Icarus was his only mythological subject.

In general Breughel accents the figures in his drawings with a delicate line; however, the persons he paints seem stubby and at the same time lively. His contemporaries tended to stick to religious subjects, as did Breughel himself, but Breughel broke away with his own painting style.

However, his art does reflect the religious orientation of his time to some degree; he saw a man driven to sin by his own foolishness. The painting is based on the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, even to the inclusion of minor characters- the plowman, the fisherman, and the shepherd. Daedalus, the father of Icarus, is absent from the painting.

Answer the following questions, using complete sentences, in the space provided. I will be collecting your responses 

1)Consider the title of this painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Which aspect of this painting seems most important, the landscape or Icarus, in terms of your understanding of this painting? Where is Icarus in this painting, if anywhere?

2)Critics argue about Breughel’s purpose in painting. Some say he sought to move men to reform; other say he tried to show the world as it really is. Does Breughel’s painting seem to you to make a statement or to teach a lesson? What about the poem?

3)Examine, carefully the language of the poem and discuss its effectiveness. For example, why do you think Williams uses “unsignificantly” (line 17) rather than the existent word “insignificantly”? Why do you think Williams stresses the fact that it is Spring?

4)What do you notice about the form or structure of Williams’ poem? In other words, I am asking you to look closely at the way Williams breaks his lines, his use of punctuation, or lack thereof. How does the form contribute to or reflect the meaning of this poem, in your view?

5)What is the definition of tragedy? How can it be found in both the painting and the poem?

Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters[1]; 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;

How, when the aged are reverently[2], passionately waiting 5
For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom[3] must run its course 10
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman[4] may 15
Have heard the splash, the forsaken[5] cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, 20
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

[1] A distinguished European artist of the period from about 1500 to the early 1700s, especially one of the great painters of this period.

[2] In a reverent manner; in respectful regard.

[3] Extreme suffering of any kind.

[4] A rustic; a countryman; a field laborer.

[5] To give up (something formerly held dear); renounce