"Musée des Beaux Arts" (French for "Museum of Fine Arts") is a twenty-three line poem written by W. H. Auden in December 1938 while he was staying in Brussels, Belgium, with Christopher Isherwood. It was first published under the title "Palais des beaux arts" (Palace of Fine Arts) in the Spring 1939 issue of New Writing, a modernist magazine edited by John Lehmann. It next appeared in the collected volume of verse Another Time (New York: Random House, 1940), which was followed four months later by the English edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1940). The poem's title derives from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, the French-language name for the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium located in Brussels. The museum is famous for its collection of Early Netherlandish painting. When Auden visited the museum he would have seen a number of the paintings of the "Old Masters" referred to in the second line of the poem, including the Fall of Icarus which at the time was still regarded as an original by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
"Musee des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden describes, through the use of one specific artwork, the impact of suffering on humankind.
Auden's free verse poem is divided into two parts, the first of which describes scenes of "suffering" and "dreadful martyrdom" which rarely break into our quotidian routines: "While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully / along." The second half of the poem refers, through the poetic device of ekphrasis, to the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560s), at the time thought to be by Bruegel, but now usually regarded as an early copy of a lost work. Auden's description allows us to visualize this specific moment and instance of the indifference of others to a distant individual's suffering, inconsequent to them, "how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster ... the white legs disappearing into the green." The disaster in question is the fall of Icarus, caused by his flying too close to the sun and melting his waxen wings.
Auden achieves much in the poem, not only with his long and irregular lines, rhythms, and vernacular phrasing ("dogs go on with their doggy life"), but also with this balance between what appear to be general examples "About suffering" and a specific example of a mythical boy's fall into the sea. Auden scholars and art historians have suggested that the first part of the poem also relies on at least two additional paintings by Bruegel which Auden would have seen in the same second-floor gallery of the museum. These identifications are based on a not quite exact, but nonetheless evocative, series of correspondences between details in the paintings and Auden's language. However, none show a "martyrdom" in the usual sense, suggesting that other works are also evoked. The Bruegels are presented below in the order in which they appear to relate to Auden's lines.
Scott Horton noted that it would be a mistake to only look to the Icarus painting when explaining Auden's poem, for "The bulk of the poem is clearly about a different painting. In fact it is the museum's prize possession: Bruegel's The Census at Bethlehem of 1566, which was acquired by the museum in 1902." The painting depicts Mary and Joseph center right, she on a donkey bundled up for the snow of Bruegel's Flanders, and he leading with a red hat and long carpenter's saw over his shoulder. They are surrounded by many other people: "someone else ... eating or opening a window or just walking dully / along." And there are children "On a pond at the edge of the wood" spinning tops and lacing on their skates.
The Massacre of the Innocents is a copy by Pieter Bruegel the Younger (1565–1636) of his father's original dated to 1565–7 (illustrated). The museum acquired it in 1830. The scene depicted, again in a wintry Flemish landscape, is recounted in Matthew 2:16–18: Herod the Great, when told that a king would be born to the Jews, ordered the Magi to alert him when the king was found. The Magi, warned by an angel, did not and so, "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under." In relation to the Census painting then we can see why the children of Auden's poem "did not specially want it [the miraculous birth] to happen."
Both this scene and the earlier are used by Bruegel to make a political comment on the Spanish Habsburg rulers of Flanders at the time (note the Habsburg coat of arms on the right front of the main building in the Census and the Spanish troops in red in The Massacre arresting peasants and knocking down doors). With respect to Auden's language we can see here "the dreadful martyrdom must run its course" (the innocent boys of Herod's wrath are traditionally considered the first of the Christian martyrs). We can see five of those dogs of Auden's poem going about their business and an approximation of "the torturer's horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree." Kinney says "Only one torturer's horse stands near a tree, however, and he is unable to rub against it because another soldier, with a battering ram, is standing between the horse and the tree ... Yet this must be the horse Auden has in mind, since it is the only torturer's horse in Bruegel's work, and the only painting with horses near trees."
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was acquired in 1912. This is the only known example of Brueghel's use of a scene from mythology. He based his figures and landscape quite closely on the myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses 8, 183–235. The painting which Auden saw was thought until recently to be an original by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Now it is believed to be based on a lost original of the artist. The painting portrays several men and a ship peacefully performing daily activities in a charming landscape. While this occurs, Icarus is visible in the bottom right hand corner of the picture, his legs splayed at absurd angles, drowning in the water. There is also a Flemish proverb (of the sort imaged in other works by Bruegel): "And the farmer continued to plough..." (En de boer ... hij ploegde voort") pointing out the indifference of people to fellow men's suffering.
- For the chronology of Auden's composition of the poem see Edward Mendelson, Early Auden, New York: Viking, 1981. pp. 346–8 and pp. 362–4.
- See Andrew Thacker, "Auden and Little Magazines," in Tony Sharpe (ed.), W. H. Auden in Context, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. pp. 337–346, esp. p. 339.
- For the full bibliography see B.C. Bloomfield and Edward Mendelson, W. H. Auden, a Bibliography, 1924–1969. 2nd edition. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972. pp. 40–45.
- Analysis of Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden
- The first apparently to note these other works was Kinney, Arthur F. (April 1963). "Auden, Bruegel, and 'Musée des Beaux Arts'". College English. 24 (7): 529–531. doi:10.2307/372881. JSTOR 372881.
- Scott Horton, "Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts," Harper's Magazine, 30 November 2008.
- See the interesting discussion of the painting produced by the BBC as part of their Private Life of a Christmas Masterpiece" series.
- Kinney 1963, p. 530.
- The Musée catalog reads: "On doute que l'exécution soit de Pieter I Bruegel mais la conception lui est par contre attribuée avec certitude" ("It is doubtful if the execution is by Breugel the Elder, but the composition can be said with certainty to be his"). See also: JSTOR 3780948 Lyckle de Vries, Bruegel's "Fall of Icarus": Ovid or Solomon?, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 30, No. 1/2 (2003), pp. 4–18. And for a scientific study of the canvas see: JSTOR Mark J. Y. Van Strydonck et al., "Radiocarbon Dating of Canvas Paintings: Two Case Studies", Studies in Conservation, Vol. 43, No. 4 (1998), pp. 209–214.
- Hunt, Patrick. "Ekphrasis or Not? Ovid (Met. 8.183–235 ) in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus". Archived from the original on 10 July 2009. Philolog Blog by Patrick Hunt, posted 9 November 2005.
- Authorized text of poem at Emory.edu
- Analysis of poem at PoetryPages
- Musee des Beaux Arts at the British Library
- New York Times close read of the poem, integrated into an exploration of Breughel’s Icarus, by Elisa Gabbert
- Gabbert, Elisa (6 March 2022). "A Poem (and a Painting) About the Suffering That Hides in Plain Sight". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 May 2022.