Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

Daedalus and Icarus: A Little ‘Vanitas,’ Courtesy of the Greeks

The story of Daedalus and Icarus in Greek mythology has inspired some fascinating works of art across multiple genres. Often told as a warning against vanity, this tale can apply to the blind ambitions of people in any society, including today’s. Daedalus was an ingenious inventor and craftsman. When the hero Theseus slayed the Minotaur in the labyrinth at Crete with the help of the King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, King Minos assumed it was Daedalus who helped him. Daedalus had designed the labyrinth for the king to lure in the youth of Athens to feed the Minotaur. As the inventor of the immense maze, Daedalus was suspected by the king, and therefore thrown into it along with his son Icarus, thinking it a perfect punishment for the inventor to die by one of his own creations.

Daedalus was determined to escape; the labyrinth was open to the air above them after all. He prayed to the gods above and soon found his inspiration in the skies. The birds that flew by shed their feathers down into it the labyrinth, so Daedalus and Icarus collected them. Daedalus fashioned some frames out of twine and using softened wax from the candles they were given, he attached the feathers to the frames and made a pair of large wings for each of them.

Preparing to take flight out of the labyrinth, Daedalus looked at Icarus and said, “Follow me and stick to the middle path. If you fly too close to the sun the wax will melt and you’ll lose your feathers. If you fly too close to the sea, the spray of the waves will wash off your feathers.” Then Daedalus mounted the wings on his son’s back, and his own next, and they were off.

As he was instructed, Icarus followed his father in flight, but he began to think he could outdo him. He was so delighted with his flying skills and so thrilled with the sensation of soaring through the air that he started to twist and turn and ascend higher. Chart a middle path? Why settle for mediocrity when you could soar above it? What did his father know about flying anyway? Clearly, Icarus was better at it. Enchanted by his own abilities, Icarus thought he was invincible up there, thought his skills at flight were better even than the gods. But as he ascended even higher and closer to the sun, the wax binding his wings together began to soften. He was so blinded by his own abilities that he did not notice this at first. But soon enough, Icarus saw that the wax was falling in large droplets like hail into the ocean below. He started flapping his wings harder and harder, but soon found that it was only the flapping of his arms as his wings were now completely gone. Then Icarus began to fall. He screamed for Daedalus to help him, but his father was too far ahead, steady on his course through the middle path. Only after Icarus had plummeted to his death did Daedalus turn his head to check on his son. He only saw feathers scattered about, floating below upon the wide open sea.

Many painters have depicted this myth in their work, of which I have chosen a few highlights. Anthony van Dyck created an intimate father and son portrait, showing Daedalus conveying his careful instructions to a seemingly oblivious Icarus.

Anthony van Dyck (Flemish), Daedalus and Icarus, c. 1620, oil on canvas, 115.3 x 86.4 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Anthony van Dyck (Flemish), Daedalus and Icarus, c. 1620, oil on canvas, 115.3 x 86.4 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Andrea Saachi’s similarly intimate portrait is less expressive, yet still dramatic in that it incorporates the intense contrasting light, called tenebrism, of the Italian Baroque.

Andrea Saachi (Italian), Daedalus and Icarus, c. 1645, oil on canvas, 58 x 46 in., Musei di Strada Nuova, Genoa.

Andrea Saachi (Italian), Daedalus and Icarus, c. 1645, oil on canvas, 58 x 46 in., Musei di Strada Nuova, Genoa.

British classicist Herbert James Draper takes an academic approach, depicting Icarus after his fall, surrounded by a group of mournful nymphs, his colossal wings still incredibly intact.

Herbert James Draper (British), The Lament for Icarus, 1898, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 155.6 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

Herbert James Draper (British), The Lament for Icarus, 1898, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 155.6 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

My personal favorite is the very neoclassical version by England’s Lord Frederick Leighton, with the impressive wings and flowing garments framing the two figures as Daedalus tries to convey his careful instructions for their flight while Icarus gazes ambitiously toward the heavens. Here, the subtle reminder of the story’s morals also comes in the form of the statue of Athena in the background. The goddess of wisdom reminds us of Icarus’s fault in his ambition to soar higher than the gods.

Lord Frederic Leighton (British), Icarus and Daedalus, c. 1869, oil on canvas, 54.4 × 41.9 in, private collection.

Lord Frederic Leighton (British), Icarus and Daedalus, c. 1869, oil on canvas, 54.4 × 41.9 in, private collection.

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