'....how do we determine the value of anything we do?'

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1555, by Pieter Breugel the Elder (about 1525–69), Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. Bridgeman Images.

Simon Russell Beale says:
‘I first came across this painting through a poem–W. H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. The poem is marvellous, Auden at his simplest and most direct. The painting is also wonderful; the detail of simultaneous events painted in saturated, almost nightmarish colour that I suspect reveal on the part of the painter an anxiety about the significance of our lives here on Earth. As Auden points out, when a “boy falling out of a sky” is no more important or extraordinary than a ploughman going about his daily work, how do we determine the value of anything we do?’

The actor Simon Russell Beale is in London Assurance at the National Theatre until June 29.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Following scientific analysis in 1996, the official line on this popular picture disappointingly reads: ‘It is doubtful if the execution is by Breugel the Elder, but the composition can be said with certainty to be his.’ Would a copy have inspired Auden and William Carlos Williams to write their famous poems? Auden’s is the better known. About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along Pieter Breugel the Elder’s nickname, ‘Peasant’ Breughel (because of his rustic satires), gives a false impression.

In fact, he was an extremely cultivated man, who had travelled in France and Italy. A great satirist, he is also one of the finest and earliest European landscape painters. Mythical Daedulus personified the first sculptor and architect, especially for Athenians. Having to flee from King Minos of Crete, for whom he had built the famous labyrinth at Knossos to house the monstrous Minotaur, he made wings fixed with wax for himself and his son, Icarus. Crossing the Aegean, Icarus flew too close to the sun, with fatal consequences.

In the picture, only his white legs are shown near the stern of the ship as he plunges to his death. His prudent father made the crossing safely. His success attracts no pictures or poems. The late Patrick Procktor (subject of Ian Massey’s excellent new biography, reviewed May 5) painted a memorable version of the legend.’

This article was first published in Country Life, June 16, 2010