Anthony van Dyck, Self-Portrait as Icarus with Daedalus

Anthony van Dyck, Self-Portrait as Icarus with Daedalus, c. 1618, oil on canvas, 112.4 x 93 cm (promised gift of Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, in support of the Center for Netherlandish Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


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The Center for Netherlandish Art at the MFA Boston

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Conservation Lab in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, looking at Anthony van Dyck’s “Self-Portrait as Icarus.” Ovid tells us that Daedalus, who was a famous Athenian architect, had been hired by the king of Crete to design a labyrinth — that is, a maze — and the king imprisoned Daedalus and his son, Icarus.

[0:31] In order to escape, Daedalus fashions large wings held together with beeswax, and what we’re seeing here is the older man tying a wing to his son’s shoulder.

Dr. Christopher Atkins: [0:42] There’s a moment of intimacy. Icarus places his hand on Daedalus’ head while Daedalus loops the tie around Icarus’ body.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] What happens in the story is that Icarus ignores the father’s caution: “Don’t fly too low, or the moisture of the sea will undo the wings. Don’t fly too high, because the sun will melt them.” But Icarus will fly too high. He will fly too close to the sun. The beeswax does melt. The feathers loosen, and he falls and drowns in the sea.

Dr. Atkins: [1:14] Interestingly, Van Dyck depicts himself as Icarus.

Dr. Zucker: [1:18] With an expression that does not seem as if he’s following his father’s advice.

Dr. Atkins: [1:24] There’s an impishness to Icarus’s face here. He’s not looking at his father.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] As if Icarus is in the process of making the decision to disobey his father, to do what he wants to do. A kind of impulsiveness and a kind of pleasure in developing this plan.

Dr. Atkins: [1:40] That idea of contemplation is also emphasized by the highlight on the forehead, which makes us get into the head of Icarus, how he’s feeling about this moment of empowerment, of transition, of his relationship to his father who’s provided him with this gift, and what he’s going to do with it.

Dr. Zucker: [1:58] The artist is so young when he paints this, showing extraordinary facility with paint.

Dr. Atkins: [2:05] Van Dyck was a phenomenal painter, even from an early age. He really was a child prodigy. As we move around the canvas, the blue cloth at the bottom is filled with passages of just absolutely bravura brushstrokes.

[2:18] Or, if we look at the hair of Icarus with these amazing curls, the artist is able to, with the brush, give the lightest of touches in an animated way that make these passages pop off the canvas.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] The very difficult handling of a face that is foreshortened, that is seen at a bit of an angle.

Dr. Atkins: [2:36] As a self-portrait, an artist has to look in a mirror. But to get this particular position, we can imagine how Van Dyck lowered his head while looking off to the side to the mirror, to try and make sure that he captured the specific details that render his face to be unique.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] This is a painting of an ancient Greek myth, but we’re not reaching much to also understand this as illustrative of the artist’s own life, of his own relationship with his father, or an important father figure in his life.

Dr. Atkins: [3:05] Van Dyck had a complicated relationship with his family. This moment in particular, he’s a young man, not only about to embark on his artistic career, but to embark on his own life as an adult. That requires a separation from his father, which is at the core of this myth.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] But Van Dyck has, in a sense, two fathers. He’s got a biological father, who he separated from, in a legal sense, not long before this painting was made.

Dr. Atkins: [3:32] He also is separating himself from his teacher, Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish Baroque painter who had taught him much and was the major artistic figure in Antwerp and would be one of the leading artistic personalities across Europe in the early 17th century.

Dr. Zucker: [3:47] But Van Dyck, the young painter, was deeply indebted to Rubens. Rubens was providing the crucial platform for the young artist to launch his career.

Dr. Atkins: [3:56] Through his work with Rubens, he learned not only how to paint the style that was in vogue, how to create engaging, dynamic narratives, how to work the paint and the brush in such brilliant fashion, but also the ways to succeed as a painter in business.

[4:13] But it was complicated, because Rubens dominated the local market. As an aspiring professional in his own right, where is his opportunity? Where can he apply all those things that he learned to be a success, going forward?

Dr. Zucker: [4:25] And in fact, Van Dyck would leave for England, where he would begin to make his mark working for James I, the king of England, and ultimately, James’ son, Charles I.

Dr. Atkins: [4:34] He later works in Italy. He goes back to England. He is constantly searching for open markets, open opportunities.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] There is ambition here. This is a story about ambition.

Dr. Atkins: [4:45] It’s an ambitious choice of subject, especially if we think back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting of the fall of Icarus.

Dr. Zucker: [4:52] In the earlier Bruegel, it’s possible to look at the painting quickly and not even see Icarus. He is a relatively small figure that is just falling into the sea. That earlier painting shows us this expansive landscape. The man plowing in the foreground is much more evident.

[5:07] Here, everything has been reversed. There is almost no landscape at all. The focus is entirely on the figures and their relationship to each other.

Dr. Atkins: [5:16] That’s a tale of father and son which is not in the Bruegel. It’s not a stretch to think about how Van Dyck was intentionally returning to a famed subject and picturing it in an entirely different way. Van Dyck exhibits a tremendous amount of self-awareness in this picture, not only in his technical brilliance, but he’s picturing himself as a central character in this painting.

[5:38] He is showing us that he is thinking about himself in his role as an artist, and what he can do, and where he wants to go as an artist. But not just thinking about it, but recording those thoughts in the form of a large-scale painting.

[5:51] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Christopher D.M. Atkins and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Anthony van Dyck, Self-Portrait as Icarus with Daedalus," in Smarthistory, November 22, 2021, accessed June 25, 2024,