Musée des Beaux Arts

by W. H. Auden

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643

The much-anthologized “Musée des Beaux Arts,” whose main subject is a painting by Bruegel, is itself a small “portrait,” a tightly bound image of how people react to the suffering of others. The dramatic situation in the poem is easily imaginable: The poet is visiting an art gallery, the “musée” of the title, and has drawn to a halt in front of Icarus by the early Renaissance Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel (the Elder). The speaker has very likely just viewed a series of other paintings by old masters, in which traditional subjects, such as the Crucifixion or a saint’s martyrdom, are prominent. Icarus, however, gives him pause: After he has studied it for a while, one may imagine, he reveals his thoughts.

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Although the painting’s theme is drawn from Greek mythology—the flight of Icarus too near the sun and his subsequent fall—the treatment is typical of Bruegel. This early modern painter delighted in the depiction of rural people in real-life settings; many of his works show peasants farming, going to market, or celebrating the harvest. Bruegel’s people are hardworking, not too pretty, and full of life. Renaissance painters, of course, devoted thousands of canvases to imagined scenes from Greek myths, like the one the Flemish artist has chosen for this picture. Ordinarily, however, a painter of this period would have placed Icarus in a restrained, “classical” setting, showing the noble tragedy implicit in the story. The myth relates how the inventor, Daedalus, and his son, Icarus, are imprisoned and escape using two sets of wings constructed by Daedalus of wax and feathers. Icarus, in his joy and pride, flies too near the sun, the wax melts, and he plunges into the sea. Thus, there is an irony implicit in Bruegel’s painting; this grand, classical theme is placed in a humble, contemporary setting. Moreover, as Icarus falls into the sea in the background, everyone else continues going about his or her business.

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The speaker finds great truth in this contrast between high tragedy and everyday life. As he contemplates the painting, he concludes that the old masters, Renaissance painters such as Bruegel, had a profound knowledge of human experience. The central fact of that experience, the masters show, is life’s enormous variety: There are so many people in the world, feeling so many emotions and doing so many things, that moments of great significance pass by unnoticed. In another painting the speaker has seen, for example, the “aged” Magi “reverently, passionately [waiting] for the miraculous birth” of Christ. Yet at the very same time, children are playing nearby, oblivious to the impending Event. In another painting, a holy person is martyred in the foreground while a dog wanders in the background and a horse rubs against a tree.

Similarly, in Icarus, life continues while the young man drowns. The fall of Icarus takes place in the background—it is only one event in a very busy canvas. A peasant, for example, continues to plow his field, even though he may have heard Icarus’s faint cry. The people on a “delicate” ship think that they may have seen something amazing—a “boy falling out of the sky”—but they are not sure, and, in any case, they have to be on their way. The point of the painting is not that people are cruel or even particularly indifferent. Rather, Bruegel, the speaker says, wants to show how suffering and death, which is understandably center stage in the life of the people to whom these things happen, are really merely trivial episodes in the greater scope of human existence. Is this how things must be? The speaker refrains from saying; his interest is not really in passing judgment on human conduct. Instead, he simply wishes to praise the unerring eye and wise judgment of masterful painters.

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