Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1555) is an oil painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It shows the Greek mythological figure, Icarus, plunging into the sea in the lower right-hand corner.
John Sutherland describes the painting as
a parable on human aspiration. Daedalus and his son, Icarus, were imprisoned on the island of Crete. Daedalus created wings to fly away. Icarus, ambitiously, flew too near the sun. The wax holding his wings together melted and he plunged into the sea and was drowned.
If you look carefully, you can see his legs as he drowns, in the far distance of the painting. They are dwarfed by the horse’s rump …
Earth abides: the ploughman ploughs. Trading vessels go about their commercial business. Life goes on. The death of an unlucky aviator is of no more importance than the fall of a sparrow. Mankind deludes itself if it thinks otherwise.
Icarus the over-reacher: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
In literature, Icarus is often used as a metaphor for human pride and ambition. For example, in the Prologue of Doctor Faustus (c. 1588), Christopher Marlowe uses the myth to foreshadow the inevitable downfall of Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for superhuman powers: ‘His waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting, heavens conspired his overthrow’.
W H Auden’s portrayal of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is described in W H Auden's famous poem Musée des Beaux-Arts, named after the museum in Brussels which holds the painting.