Musée des Beaux Arts

by W. H. Auden

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In "Musee des Beaux Arts" by W. H. Auden, who are the Old Masters referred to in line 2?

In “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden, the Old Masters referred to in line 2 are the greatest Western painters from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century. It is their works that adorn the eponymous museum and countless other museums and galleries throughout Europe and the United States.

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In “Musee des Beaux Arts,” Auden presents the Old Masters, those painters from the Renaissance to the early Romantic period generally regarded as the best, as providing us with an elevated insight into the human condition. In particular, they understand suffering, an essential part of that condition.

Their insights are contrasted sharply with the attitude of most people as they go about their ordinary, everyday lives. This gap between the heightened perception of the artist and the more mundane understanding of lesser mortals is illustrated in Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus, in which a plowman is depicted as seemingly oblivious to the tragedy of Icarus falling from the sky after having flown too close to the sun.

Yet Old Masters like Brueghel understood suffering very well, as they demonstrate in their many remarkable paintings, which adorn the walls of numerous galleries and museums throughout the world. And if we wish to arrive at a deeper understanding of suffering, then we would do well to examine its treatment by the great artists of the past. Otherwise, we will be like the plowman in The Fall of Icarus, or like the children skating on the ice in The Numbering at Bethlehem, completely oblivious to the significance of the historic event taking place not far from them.

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In the poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," W.H. Auden writes of incidents in artwork in which casual onlookers appear unaffected by disasters. He gives several examples in the first stanza and focuses on a particular work of art in the second stanza. He emphasizes that the Old Masters understood the juxtaposition of those undergoing tragedies and people indifferently watching.

In a general sense, the term "Old Masters" refers to any talented European painter working in or before the eighteenth century. However, Auden bases his poem in particular on works he observed in the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, also known as the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, which are located in Brussels, Belgium. These museums mainly display the works of Dutch and Belgian artists.

Auden mainly focuses on the work of Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In the second stanza of the poem, Auden refers to Bruegel by name and mentions a painting commonly accredited to him called Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In the painting, as Auden states, Icarus is falling into the sea while a plowman continues to work and a ship sails close by.

In the first stanza, Auden refers to several other Bruegel paintings. For instance, The Census at Bethlehem depicts Joseph leading Mary on a donkey while numerous people go about their activities all around, including a group of kids skating on a pond. Bruegel's painting The Massacre of the Innocents shows the murder of all young boys after the birth of Jesus, which Auden refers to when he writes that "the dreadful martyrdom must run its course."

In conclusion, when Auden mentions Old Masters, he is referring mainly to Dutch and Flemish artists who painted before the nineteenth century, and specifically to the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

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The particular Old Master painter Auden is referring to in line two is Pieter Bruegel, who lived from about 1525 to 1569. Brueghel was the most famous of the Dutch and Flemish painters of his era. In general, however, an "Old Master" refers to any European painter of note who lived before 1800.

In lines one and two, Auden comments that the Old Masters were "never wrong" about suffering. He is saying that what makes these painters great is not only their technical skills but the way they were able to convey deep insights about human nature through their work.

Auden's poem is part of the ekphrastic genre, which is poems or literature about art. The poem conveys the Old Master Brueghel's insight into how indifferent the average person is to the suffering of those who strive for greatness. Ordinary life, the painting shows, goes on placidly against the pain of those who attempt great feats.

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The term "Old Masters" (not a technical term in Art History) - which appears in the second line of W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" - refers to skilled painters of Europe who worked before 1800. The Old Master who was "never wrong" about suffering is Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 - September 9, 1569), a Flemish painter whose painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus constitutes the allusion of the second stanza of the poem. Interestingly, a recent examination of the painting (1996) indicates that the painting, famously located in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels, is in fact a version of a lost Bruegel original, a fact Auden would not have been aware of. It is through the Icarus allusion that Auden articulates the principal  motif of the poem - how art transforms the response to human suffering. When made the subject of art, suffering loses its insistent existential thrust and takes on an aesthetic meaning - one that can be ignored. Subsumed into art suffering no longer elicits an automatic response of horror or sympathy, but allows detachment. Thus, in the poem "the ploughman" can ignore the "forsaken cry" of the doomed Icarus, and the sailors, tangentially noticing a "boy falling out of the sky" can steer the ship "calmly on". 

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