Today’s post is, unsurprisingly, influenced by Classics, and another artist inspired by the myths of ancient Greece. I picked this one not only because it’s a favourite of mine, but because I just finished framing a print of this painting yesterday and it is sitting happily on my wall across from me.
Herbert James Draper was an English painter, born in 1863 and died in 1920. He was not part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement as far as I am aware, and his work stylistically shows this, though the subject matters do tend to overlap. His work is full of Classical imagery, no more so than his most famous piece, The Lament for Icarus (1898).
The painting shows the scene after the famous myth of Icarus and his fall from the sky. The young man and his father, Daedalus (an inventor) escaped their prison by crafting wings from bird feathers, wax and string, and flying out over the sea. Daedalus warns his sun not to fly too high, lest the heat from the sun melt the wax, and also not to fly too low, or the moisture from the sea would dampen his wings. In an act meant to display the dangers of hubris, Icarus does soar too high and ends up falling down into the sea. It is the moment after his death that we find him in this painting, with some sea nymphs gathered around to investigate the matter.
I have always found this painting interesting largely due to the colour palette used. The myth is so focused on the elements of sea and sky that blue would come to mind as the dominant colour. This painting, awash in browns and oranges, seems more reminiscent of land and fire, elements left out of the myth. That being said, I think there is something to the idea about the entire scene and figure being ‘burned and charred’ by the sun, as he approached too closely.
Also notable is that the wings, supposed to have been melted by the heat, are intact and spread around him. The feathers are also much too large to have been gathered from birds that flew into the prison. I think Draper probably wanted to play up the ‘fallen angel’ imagery and leave the romantic aspect intact. It is still a lovely composition, even if you are being picky about the mythological accuracy (is that an oxymoron?)