Characters in Painted Stories: 1 Introduction

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.

Story-telling is a central theme in literature, but an embarrassing secret in painting. For the last century, critics and commentators have insisted that it no longer existed, and was unworthy of a fine art. While the literature on verbal narrative has developed greatly, only in comics has there been any serious examination of visual narrative.

One prolific thread among those studying literary narrative has been the concept of common plots, as considered in depth and breadth by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories (2004). He examines hundreds of well-known literary works from the Epic of Gilgamesh to James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, and arrives at seven underlying storylines:

  • overcoming the monster;
  • rags to riches;
  • the quest;
  • voyage and return;
  • comedy, involving a transition from confusion to joyful union;
  • tragedy;
  • rebirth through miraculous redemption.

For these, Booker synthesises archetypal figures such as the Monster, examines the psychology underlying components of the plots, and looks at recent variants such as the mystery story. This is monumental work based on a lifetime’s close reading, which raises questions of relevance to painted stories too. In this new series, I look at one aspect: the visual development of figures within narrative paintings, in their characters.

Even the most ingenious and sophisticated painted stories can show very limited narrative compared to the hundreds of pages of a novel. But each painting contains greater detail of those moments in the story which they can depict. The first of Booker’s seven basic plots, Overcoming the Monster, is featured in many narrative paintings, and sometimes whole series such as Edward Burne-Jones’ Perseus. The story of the rescue of Andromeda from her fate in the jaws of Cetus the sea-monster is one of the most popular painted stories. Not only do individual artists choose different moments to depict, but their characterisation of Perseus and Andromeda can differ significantly. This series is about the depiction of the three figures within that story, and the lead figures in others.

I illustrate this approach with the legend of Daedalus, identified by Booker as a Tragedy (p 154).

According to classical Greek legend, Daedalus was the master craftsman who was most famously responsible for creating the Labyrinth on Crete, which contained the Minotaur. Because of his knowledge of the Labyrinth, Minos, the king of Crete, shut him up in a tower to prevent him from spreading that knowledge. Daedalus therefore set about building himself and his young son Icarus sets of wings, so that they could fly from the island and escape.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 8, 183-235) describes how they did this, tying feathers together, securing them at their midpoints with string, then at their bases using beeswax. Once Daedalus had completed his own set of wings, he found that flapping them in the manner of a bird generated lift, so he made a second pair for his son.

Father and son then prepared to make their escape from Crete. Daedalus specifically warned Icarus that he should not fly too low, or the moisture from the sea would soak the feathers, nor too high, or the heat of the sun would melt the wax and the wings would disintegrate. They set off, and were making good progress passing several islands when Icarus became over-confident and soared upwards towards the sun. This melted the wax as Daedalus had warned, Icarus’ wings fell apart, he plummeted into the sea, and was drowned near what became known as Icaria, an island ten miles southwest of Samos, in the northern Aegean Sea.

I have previously analysed the narrative using Eastgate’s Storyspace 3 app as follows:


There are two significant changes of fortune, both of which are accompanied by some element of revelation: the first is when Daedalus and Icarus start their flight, which marks a change from bad to good fortune, with the new knowledge being the discovery that they can fly. The second is the moment that Icarus’ wings disintegrate, and his fortune changes from good to bad, with the confirmation of Daedalus’ prior suspicion that the beeswax would melt.

As moments of peripeteia, according to classical Aristotelian narrative, and particularly for a tragedy such as this, these should be the most powerful and moving events to show in a painting, given references to the prior and subsequent states of fortune. In the overall structure of this story, there is no doubt that the second moment of peripeteia is the climax, with the most dramatic action.

Booker’s analysis is based on five stages:

  1. Anticipation, in which the ‘hero’ Icarus is unfulfilled by his confinement on Crete.
  2. Dream, in which father and son are committed to their experimental flight to escape.
  3. Frustration, when Icarus forgets the cautions of his father.
  4. Nightmare, when the wings of Icarus disintegrate.
  5. Destruction, as Icarus plummets to his death.

In these, it is not Daedalus but Icarus who is the central figure, the doomed hero, and it’s that role in which he is expected to be depicted. To consider the paintings telling this story, I show them in temporal sequence.

Pre-flight (Anticipation and Dream stages)

Andrea Sacchi (1599–1661), Daedalus and Icarus (c 1645), oil, 147 x 117 cm, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Andrea Sacchi’s Daedalus and Icarus (c 1645) shows Daedalus, at the left, fitting Icarus’ wings, prior to the boy’s flight. Icarus has his right arm raised to allow the fitting, and looks intently at his new wings. Daedalus is concentrating on adjusting the thin ribbons which pass over his son’s shoulders, and may be explaining to him the importance of flying at the right altitude.

The father’s face is turned away as he looks at his son, whose eyes look up and away as he pursues his dream of escape. It is Icarus who appears in the role of hero, and who is wearing the wings.

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 slightly earlier Daedalus and Icarus (1615-25) puts the boy at the centre, his wings already attached to his back, and his father apparently explaining the importance of flying at the right altitude. Father and son hold out their right hands, pointing with the index finger as if using it to enumerate important matters. Icarus looks to the front, appearing to concentrate, while his father looks at him and appears to be speaking.

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, in his Icarus and Daedalus (c 1869), shows the pair on the roof of the tower overlooking a bay. Daedalus is crouching while fitting his son’s wings, and looks up at Icarus. The boy stands in heroic pose, holding his right arm up, partly to allow his father to fit the wings, and possibly in a gesture of strength and defiance. Icarus is looking to the right, presumably towards the mainland to which they will soon be travelling. This painting also suggests that Daedalus is dark-skinned, and Icarus more ‘Caucasian’ in appearance; Daedalus is wearing a scalp-hugging cap which appears intended for flight.

Charles Paul Landon (1760–1826), Icarus and Daedalus (1799), oil on canvas, 54 × 43.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle d’Alençon, Alençon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Landon’s Icarus and Daedalus (1799) shows the moment that Icarus launches in flight from the top of the tower, his arms held out and treading air with his legs during this first flight. Daedalus stands behind, his arms still held horizontally forward from launching Icarus. Again, it’s the son who has angelic white wings and appears the hero.

Few paintings seem to show father and son flying successfully across the sky, but they resume immediately after Icarus’ wings have disintegrated, and he has started falling through the air.

Fall from the sky (Nightmare stage)

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.

Gowy’s The Fall of Icarus (1635-7) and Rubens’ The Fall of Icarus (1636) are almost identical. Gowy was working at this time as an apprentice within Rubens’ workshop, and may therefore have made his finished painting from Rubens’ initial oil sketch, or both may have been painted by the same hand.

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.

They show Icarus, his wings in tatters, plunging down through the air past Daedalus. Icarus holds both his arms up as if still trying to fly despite the loss of his wings, his mouth and eyes are wide open in shock and fear, and his body appears to be tumbling 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 both high above a bay containing people and a fortified town at the edge of the sea, now named Icaria.

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.

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.

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 (II) Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c 1565) is one of a few similar landscapes which show Icarus’ descent as relatively small events taking place within a much bigger landscape, in which some of Ovid’s references are included. These are:

  • 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.

This painting shows all three, which are easily spotted as de Momper has helpfully painted their clothing scarlet. Up at the top left, Daedalus is seen to be flying well, but Icarus is in an inverted position as he tumbles down.

Impact (Destruction stage)

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.

Long believed to be Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s original painting, his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is now thought to be a very good copy of the original from about 1558, possibly also painted by de Momper. It is similar in approach: the painting is a big landscape in which Ovid’s three other activities are shown, although here with less help from colour coding.

However Icarus has already plunged into the sea, only his legs being visible above the surface, slightly closer to the viewer than the prominent ship at the right. From the direction of gaze of the shepherd, Daedalus has flown off to the upper left.

Vlaho Bukovac (Biagio Faggioni) (1855–1922) The Fall of Icarus (panel of diptych) (1898), oil, dimensions not known, National Museum of Serbia, Beograd, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

Vlaho Bukovac (Biagio Faggioni) painted two different versions of Icarus reaching earth: in The Fall of Icarus (1898), one panel of a diptych about this story, he shows Icarus on the seabed, as he drowns, the remains of his wings still visible.

Vlaho Bukovac (Biagio Faggioni) (1855–1922) Icarus on the Rocks (1897), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Moderna Galerija, Zagreb, Croatia. Wikimedia Commons.

His earlier Icarus on the Rocks (1897) departs from Ovid’s account and has Icarus crash onto rocks; his posture is similar in the two paintings.

Herbert James Draper (1863–1920), Lament for Icarus (1898), oil on canvas, 182.9 x 155.6 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Herbert Draper’s Lament for Icarus (1898) shows a more apocryphal and romantic view, in which three nymphs have recovered the (apparently dry) body of Icarus, and he is laid out on a rock, while they lament his fate, to the accompaniment of a lyre. Perhaps influenced by contemporary thought about human flight, Draper gives Icarus huge wings, and they are shown intact, rather than disintegrated from their exposure to the sun’s heat.

The evidence from these paintings, made between 1565 and 1898, a period of over three centuries, is entirely consistent with Booker’s description of Tragedy, the heroic role of Icarus, and the five stages.

In the next article, I will start to look at paintings of Booker’s first type of plot, Overcoming the Monster.


Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2