Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 40 Daedalus and Icarus

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Fall of Icarus (1636), oil on panel, 27 x 27 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

Ovid introduced the architect and artificer Daedalus in the previous myth of the Minotaur, as the person who made the labyrinth within which the monster was confined. This provides a smooth link to the next myth, that of Daedalus and his son Icarus.

The Story

After he had built the labyrinth, Daedalus – who was not a Cretan, and was being held on the island by Minos – yearned to leave Crete and return home. With the sea barred to him, he decided to take to the air.

Daedalus built himself, and his son Icarus, sets of wings made from feathers held together by beeswax. Once they were completed, Daedalus tested his by hovering in the air.

He then cautioned his son to fly a middle course: neither so low that the sea would wet the feathers and make them heavy, nor so high that the heat of the sun would damage them. He also told Icarus to follow his lead, and not to try navigating by the stars.

Daedalus fitted his son with his wings, and gave him further advice about how to fly with them. As he did this, he shed tears, and his hands trembled. Once they were both ready, Daedalus kissed his son, and flew off in the lead just like a bird with its fledgeling chick in tow.

The pair flew over a fisherman holding his rod, a shepherd leaning on his crook, and a ploughman with his plough, amazing them with the sight. They flew past Delos and Paros, and approached further islands. But Icarus started to enjoy the thrill of flying too much, and soared too high. As he neared the sun, the wax securing the feathers in his wings softened, and the wings fell apart.

As Icarus fell, he called to his father, before entering the water in what is now known as the Icarian Sea, between the Cyclades and the coast of modern Turkey. All Daedalus could see were the feathers, the remnants of wings, on the surface of the water. Daedalus was full of remorse, and buried his son’s body on the island nearby.

As Daedalus was digging his son’s grave, a solitary partridge watched him from a nearby oak tree. The partridge had originally been Daedalus’ nephew, who had been brought to him as an apprentice. As the nephew’s skills and ingenuity grew, Daedalus became envious of him, seeking to kill him and pretend that it was an accident. When Daedalus threw him from the roof of her temple on the Acropolis, Pallas Athena saved the apprentice by transforming him into a partridge in mid-air:
But Pallas, goddess of ingenious men,
saving the pupil changed him to a bird,
and in the middle of the air he flew
on feathered wings; and so his active mind —
and vigor of his genius were absorbed
into his wings and feet; although the name
of Perdix was retained.
The Partridge hides
in shaded places by the leafy trees
its nested eggs among the bush’s twigs;
nor does it seek to rise in lofty flight,
for it is mindful of its former fall.

The Paintings

This is one of the most famous stories from the Metamorphoses (which Ovid also told in more detail in his Ars Amatoria), and has inspired a great many wonderful paintings. I have previously looked at many of them, and analysed their narrative in relation to Ovid’s (see links below). Here is a selection of the best.

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Daedalus and Icarus (1615-25), oil on canvas, 115.3 x 86.4 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

Van Dyck’s Daedalus and Icarus (1615-25) shows Daedalus giving his son the vital pre-flight briefing. From the father’s gestures, he is here explaining the importance of keeping the right altitude, which proved to be the son’s downfall.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Icarus and Daedalus (c 1869), oil on canvas, 138.2 × 106.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Icarus and Daedalus (c 1869), shows the pair on the roof of a tower overlooking the coast. Daedalus is fitting his son’s wings, and looks up at Icarus. The boy holds his right arm up, partly to allow his father to fit the wings, and possibly in a gesture of strength and defiance, as the two will shortly be escaping from Crete. Icarus looks to the right, presumably towards their mainland destination, and Daedalus is wearing a curious scalp-hugging cap intended for flight.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Fall of Icarus (1636), oil on panel, 27 x 27 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens’ initial oil sketch of The Fall of Icarus (1636) above, was presumably turned into a finished painting by his apprentice Jacob Peter Gowy, below. Icarus, his wings in tatters and holding his arms up as if trying to flap them, plunges past Daedalus. Icarus’ mouth and eyes are wide open in shock and fear, and his body tumbles as it falls.

Daedalus is still flying, his wings intact and fully functional; he looks alarmed, towards the falling body of his son. They are high above a bay containing people and a fortified town at the edge of the sea.

Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus (1635-7), oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Blondel’s spectacular painted ceiling showing The Sun or the Fall of Icarus (1819) combines a similar view of Daedalus flying on, and Icarus in free fall, with Apollo’s sun chariot being driven across the heavens.

Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), The Sun or the Fall of Icarus (1819), mural, 271 x 210 cm, Denon, first floor, Rotonde d’Apollon, Musée du Louvre, Paris. By Jastrow (2008), via Wikimedia Commons.
Joos de Momper (II) (1564–1635), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c 1565), oil on panel, 154 x 173 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Joos de Momper’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c 1565), above, show Icarus’ descent within a much bigger landscape, which includes some of Ovid’s details:

  • an angler catching a fish with a rod and line,
  • a shepherd leaning on a crook,
  • a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough.

To aid the viewer, de Momper has painted their clothing scarlet.

De Momper may also have made the copy, below, of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s famous Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Here, Brueghel makes the viewer work much harder to see the crucial elements of the story: all there is to be seen of Icarus are his flailing legs and some feathers, by the stern of the ship at the right.

Daedalus is not visible at all, but the shepherd leaning on his crook is looking up at him, up to the left. As in de Momper’s own version, Brueghel also shows the ploughman and the angler.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (copy of original from c 1558), oil on canvas mounted on wood, 73.5 × 112 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

Between them, these superb paintings tell the whole of the myth, in almost as much detail as Ovid.


The Story in Paintings: Icarus and his downfall
Analysing narrative paintings of Icarus and Daedalus

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.