Daedalus was the legendary Greek craftsman whose very fame and skill led to his own imprisonment on the island of Crete by King Minos, together with his son, Icarus. To enable them to escape, Daedalus crafted wings of wax and feathers and instructed Icarus to follow him closely and fly neither too high, nor too low. In this painting Andrea Sacchi brilliantly captures this final moment of preparation, with the concentrated, robust mass of Daedalus counterpoised against the youthful form of Icarus, the dreamer, whose ethereal gaze and outstretched arm are a subtle reminder that he will disregard his father and fly too close to the sun. By so doing the wax melted and his wings fell off, and Icarus plunged dramatically to his death, serving both as a metaphor for the dangers of extremes and as an apt allusion to the risky quest of creative genius.
Although Andrea Sacchi is one of the most significant Italian artists of the seventeenth century, it is rare that a painting by him, especially of such exceptional quality, comes onto the market. Many of his works seem to have remained with the descendants of the Roman families who commissioned them. In particular he was patronised by various members of the Barberini family; he lived as a member of Cardinal Antonio Barberini's household, and for the Palazzo Barberini painted the ceiling fresco of the Allegory of Divine Wisdom (c.1629-31). Sacchi was notable as the most vocal proponent of Baroque Classicism in the 1630s, arguing against the exuberant multi-faceted Baroque manner of Pietro da Cortona and Gianlorenzo Bernini. He debated against Cortona in the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, maintaining that history paintings should have few figures, with simplicity and unity paramount, as exemplified by the present picture. Above all, he sought to create balanced, pared-down images that concentrated on the range of emotions ('affetti') experienced by the protagonists, with an underlying emphasis on the moral significance of the event.
Sacchi was said to have been a slow and deliberate artist. His biographer, Giovanni Pietro Bellori, recorded that he 'worked with an uneasy mind; knowing perfectly well the difference between the good and the better, he was never content'. As was the case with some of his other successful compositions, a number of versions of Daedalus and Icarus exist, of which the present picture is arguably the finest, though the least known. The late Stephen Pepper described this canvas as 'a masterpiece in the intimate clear manner of the 17th Century', adding that 'it may be the only autograph version of this painting' (Pepper, op. cit. p. 316). Nicholas Turner, to whom we are grateful, has also remarked upon the beautiful quality of this picture, particularly observing the many 'delicious' pentiments. One version of Sacchi's Daedalus and Icarus, until recently dismissed as a copy, is in the Doria Pamphilij Collection, Rome (133.5 x 110 cm.) and was recorded as early as 1652 in the inventory of the collection of Prince Camillo Pamphilij (G. Capitelli, I capalavori della collezione Doria Pamphilij da Tiziano a Velázquez, catalogo della mostra, Milan, 1996, p. 61). The best-known version of the composition is today in the Palazzo Rosso, Genoa (147 x 117 cm.). First definitely recorded in 1766, it is perhaps the picture listed in Cardinal Antonio Barberini's inventory of 1671 ('5 palmi' measuring approximately 112 cm; see A. Sutherland Harris, Andrea Sacchi, Princeton, 1977, no. 49, pp. 81-2, pl. 87; for a recent discussion of both pictures see A. Sutherland Harris in L'Idea del Bello. Viaggio per Roma nel Seicento con Giovan Pietro Bellori, exhibition catalogue, II, Rome 2000, pp. 451-2).
The present canvas displays a number of subtle but significant differences with the versions in Rome and Genoa. Here, a pink instead of blue ribbon falls from Icarus's right shoulder instead of his left; there are changes in the colour and form of the drapery falling down Icarus's side and in its colour, and Deadalus is more bronzed than in the Genoa picture. The most dramatic difference, however, is the way Daedalus turns away from the viewer in the present picture, so his profile is no longer visible, thus shifting the entire focus onto Icarus. As a result, this is perhaps 'Sacchi's most sensitive rendering of the theme' (Whitfield, op. cit., p. 52). It should further be noted that the measurements of the present canvas accord almost exactly with that of an unframed painting recorded as no. 306 in the inventory of the contents of Sacchi's house, taken in June 1661: 'un quadro Tela d'Imperatore con la favola di Dedalo senza cornice' (Sutherland Harris, op. cit., 1977, Appendix II, p. 122, no. 306). By 1661 the Doria Pamphilij canvas was already recorded elsewhere and neither the picture listed in the Barberini inventories nor the Palazzo Rosso canvas match the standard measurements of 'Tela d'Imperatore' [i.e. 130 x 100 cm], leaving only the present canvas as the painting most likely to be that recorded in Sacchi's house at the time of his death.