The Victorian painter Herbert James Draper was born 1863 in London, England and most popular at the end of the 19th century. Being a Classicist, he preferred painting scenes from Greek mythology, mostly women in woodland scenes or by the ocean. For this particular painting, he received in 1900 the gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
In Greek mythology, Icarus, the son of Daedalus, foolishly flew too close to the sun against his father’s warnings. They had been prisoners in Crete after Daedalus built his labyrinth to hold the Minotaur. Desperate, he designed and built elaborate wings from wax and feathers. Those wings proved to literally be Icarus’ downfall and he drowned in the ocean after his terrible fall. This painting is a testament to the tragedy and Romantic aspects of this story.
Overall, I think this is a Romantic painting. The Romantics had a thing for idolizing heroic figures ESPECIALLY ones who died tragically. Usually they will be posed very dramatically or theatrically. Truly, figures depicted in these works were idolized in all their depressing glory. (Do not get the wrong idea. I LOVE Romantic art. But they were a little too dramatic sometimes.)
Not one for mythological paintings, I actually am pretty surprised with how much I love this painting. But. . . it really intrigues me. Why do I love this over-dramatic “beautiful” corpse picture? (Hahah I am really sarcastic today.) Firstly, I love the coloring, especially in the wings. I have always been drawn to autumn color schemes with their elaborate shades of red, orange and brown. Fall symbolizes all life slipping away or going to sleep and also all things melancholy. I remember reading “The Story of the Year” by Hans Christian Anderson and how the man who represented the year was separated from his wife once fall came and took all life away. The colors make me think of that idea of life slipping away and leaving behind a husk.
Secondly, there is a lot of symbolism hidden in the painting: the position of the body as a symbol for subjective emotion, the color of his tan skin for his close contact to the sun, the sunset as the passage of time etc. Draper put a lot of thought into this painting and even brought in four professional French models prepping for his work . . . (which sort of creeps me out at the same time but what can you do.)
Lastly, it has a timeless quality to it though it is placed at a young man’s death. Romantic paintings certainly have a way of feeling powerful. For this one, it stayed with me. It also actually made me realize how sad his death really was. Not because he died, but because it could have been avoided and it was an unnecessary waste of life.
I showed this picture to my students. After they got over the fact that the girls were naked, they actually really liked it. Several of them came up to me later and asked me who had painted it and its name. It really is incredible to me the power great art has on the mind.