Herbert James Draper's 1898 canvas Lament for Icarus is a stirring and poignant work of English classicism, which rose above its contemporaries when first exhibited. A dramatic reproduction of the Greek myth of Icarus, the son of Daedalus who, when testing his father's wax-and-feather wings, went against all advice and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and the resulting tragedy saw the ambitious young man plummet to his death in the sea. In Draper's vision of the scene Icarus lays spread in a helpless and heroic fashion surrounded by the mourning and languid personae of nymphs. Nowhere to be seen, his father is markedly absent, separating inventor from pilot. Clearly, in the world of the frame the catastrophe has only recently occurred. In his isolation, comforted only by his fellow figures of myth Draper's Icarus is a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite hero, a tragic figure leaving a beautiful parting scene.
First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898, Lament for Icarus won the gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris. Although of a generation influenced by the seminal works of the French Impressionists, Draper's canvas would not have appeared out of place at the Paris Salon some two decades before. Yet the artist's decision to use the human body as a vessel for transmitting highly-charged emotive responses taps into a firmly late-Victorian trend in sculpture, literature, painting and poetry. Without doubt the artist's most popular picture, this imagined reproduction of a dramatic and memorable moment in classical mythology resonates with the tastes and trends of Draper's own present day. Inspired by the flourishes of Edward Burne-Jones, Lament for Icarus was to become one of the artist's last mythological studies, as the popularity of the theme was decisively on the wane by the turn of the century. As one of the final manifestations of Victorian melodrama in painting, Lament for Icarus is a truly iconic work.
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