Who was Icarus? The Reckless Youth Who Fell into the Sea

One of the most compelling stories of all time, the Greek mythological character of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, has fascinated artists for centuries. In the full Greek myth Daedalus and Icarus, a series of universal themes are explored including the father/son jostle for power, the overconfident and reckless ambition of youth, and the irrepressible human desire to stretch beyond the limitations of our earthbound lives. Let’s take a look at the story of Icarus in more detail, and how artists through the ages have brought the characters to life, including Henri Matisse, whose Icarus features in our Illus Prints collection.

Henri Matisse, Icarus, 1947
Henri Matisse, Icarus, 1947

 

The story of Daedalus and Icarus begins on the island of Crete, where legendary inventor, architect and craftsman Daedalus worked as a servant for King Minos. Daedalus famously designed and built the first ever labyrinth for King Minos, to imprison the dangerous Minotaur. Inside the royal court Daedalus also met and fell in love with the beautiful Naucrate, and the pair had a son, named Icarus.

 

Frederic, Lord Leighton, Icarus and Daedalus, 1869, Private collection. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Frederic, Lord Leighton, Icarus and Daedalus, 1869, Private collection. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Both Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned in a tower to stop their knowledge of the labyrinth from spreading out into the public. In an attempt to escape from confinement, the great craftsman Daedalus build two pairs of majestic wings from feathers, string and wax on wooden frames for he and his son. In the powerful painting, Icarus and Daedalus, 1869, Lord Leighton captures father and son on the roof of the tower, as Daedalus ties wings onto his adolescent son. Here the tense power dynamic between the two is alluded to as Daedalus seems to cautiously explain instructions to Icarus. But the boy’s distracted gaze is averted as he stares out to the distant horizon, arm raised in triumph as if the escape has already taken place. Daedalus warned Icarus that the wings had many weaknesses, and he should not fly to high, or the wax would melt, or too low as the feathers would get soaked by the sea.

 

Jacob Peter Gowy, Daedalus and Icarus, 17th century, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image via Ancient History Encyclopaedia.
Jacob Peter Gowy, Daedalus and Icarus, 17th century, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image via Ancient History Encyclopaedia.

 

On the day of their miraculous escape, Daedalus and Icarus soared out into the sky with their tied-on wings, achieving man’s first ever flight. Spurred on by the success of their journey, the cocky young Icarus became over-confident, ignoring his father’s warnings and flapping higher and higher towards the sun. Just as Daedalus had predicted, the wax gluing the wings together quickly began to melt, and as his wings fell apart Icarus plunged towards his death into the Icarian Sea.

 

Henri Matisse, Icarus, 1947
Henri Matisse, Icarus, 1947

 

The moment when Icarus loses control and falls from the sky has particularly fascinated artists, symbolising the pain, failure and tragedy that so often punctuates the human condition. In Jacob Peter Gowy’s, Daedalus and Icarus, from the 17th century, the boy is suspended in a moment of abject fear and helplessness, grappling out for help with his arms and legs as he topples backwards towards the thrashing sea. In Henri Matisse’s updated, modernist depiction of this very same moment, a more optimistic vision of the reckless youth is portrayed, celebrating the wild and untameable spirit of his adolescence. Here Icarus is seen from below as a silhouette against the blue night sky, as cut out stars twinkle around him with magical glistening light. His arms and legs are spread open in freefall and his head is tilted to the side in curious wonder, while his heart is a fiery inferno of red excitement, as Matisse observes, ‘’with a passionate heart (he) falls out of the starry sky”. In Matisse’s modernist vision of the ancient tale it is as if Icarus is relishing the thrill of this incredible ride, just moments before he comes crashing to his death.

This amazing article written by Rosie Lesso.


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