Mythology on Canvas (Part 14)

The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper
The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper

The legend of Icarus (Latin variation) is an interesting story which originated within Greek mythology. He assisted his father, Daedalus, in building the labyrinth to house the Minotaur for King Minos of Crete. We can avoid going into the military and political backgrounds as to why, but Athenian youths and maidens were being sacrificed to the Minotaur. Daedulus and Icarus were imprisoned on the island of Crete for giving Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, a ball of string which enabled Theseus to find his way back out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. I remember being fascinated with this story when I was in sixth grade.

Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings out of feathers and wax so that he and his son could escape, but Icarus flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, disintegrating the wings, and Icarus fell to his death in the sea. The tale stands as a warning against the overconfidence of youth.

The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper shows the aftermath of these events. The body of Icarus is being mourned by three nymphs. He has apparently been retrieved from the sea, and his wings are incongruously intact. But how effective would the picture be without them? They immediately draw the eye. Another element of drama is added by the expression on the face of the nymph at the top. The style of the painting is realistic, its content fantastic. The overall brownish cast with paler highlights (especially at the center) adds to the sense of mourning. Again, the reflection of light off of the water in the background adds to the overall effect of the painting.

We will examine a somewhat more abstract composition by Draper next week.

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