Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Fall of Icarus”, 1636, Oil on Wood, 27 x 27 cm, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

“The Fall of Icarus” is another of the sketches that Peter Paul Rubens produced from 1636 onwards for the decoration of the Torre de la Parada. In it he chooses to illustrate the most dramatic moment of Ovid’s narrative, when Daedalus looks towards Icarus falling headlong into the void. The painter confers a highly human dimension to his work by representing the painful loss of a son.

At the same time Rubens concentrates on the movement of the two bodies, contrasting with the calmness of the sea and the mute intensity of the sun. Icarus is exposed in full light, whilst Daedalus’ body is handled in darker tones. This play of light and shadow allows the artist both to place Icarus in the forefront of the picture and to insist on the vulnerability of his flesh.

This sketch represents the destiny of man, as does Rubens’s “Fall of Phaethon”, also conserved in the museum. Archive documents tell us that these two paintings with a similar theme were placed facing each other in the first room on the ground floor of the Spanish royal hunting pavilion. This strict placing forms an exception, as Rubens’ mythological works do not appear to have been arranged according to any pre-established concept.

The final picture, now in the Madrid Prado, was painted by Jacob Peter Gowy and is much more anecdotal than Rubens’ sketch. A city is visible to the back of the composition, with two small figures walking on the beach, probably Daedalus and Icarus before starting their flight. Contrary to the Ovid text, which evokes a day of bright sun, the sky is cloudy and the sea choppy.

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