After decades of restricting his expressive means to lithographs or the dark chiaroscuro of his charcoal drawings which he called his noirs, in the 1890s Redon began to work in color. He experimented first in pastel, creating colored drawings, and then adopted oil paints, which he had used only occasionally as a young man. He exploited the oil medium's textural possibilities and worked in formats larger than those that paper sheets in conventional sizes allowed. He admired Paul Gauguin's synthesist compositions, with their personal symbolism drawn from many sources, and the decorations of the Nabi painters who proceeded from Gauguin's example.
Whereas in the noirs Redon often gave expression to inner visions inhabited by creatures of his own invention, in his paintings he more often relied on figures drawn from classical mythology or later legend, which would have been more familiar to his viewers and would communicate readily with them. The stories of the ancient Greeks were an especially rich source of subject matter, providing archetypal characters that embodied virtually every conceivable human quality and foible. The study of Greek and Latin, and extensive reading of the classics of antiquity, were then an important part of a formal education. The ancient myths helped people to explore and understand human nature in metaphoric terms, before the emergence of modern psychology.
In the present painting Redon depicts the fall of Icarus, whose father was Dedalus, the first great artificer among ancient men. Dedalus designed, for King Minos of Crete, the labyrinth that held the monstrous Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, who was the offspring of the king's daughter Pasiphäe and a sacrificial bull sent by the sea god Neptune as a gift. Dedalus later fell out of favor, and King Minos imprisoned him and his son. Planning their escape, Dedalus fashioned wings out of feathers and wax, and as they put them on he instructed Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. They flew off, but in his excitement Icarus soared higher and higher until the sun melted the wax in his wings, and the boy plunged into the sea below. Dedalus retrieved his son's body and buried him on the Aegean island still known today as Icaria, the waters around which are called the Icarian Sea.
The flight of Dedalus has been interpreted to represent the transmission of early technology throughout the ancient world. The fall of Icarus carries an ancillary admonition, that these developments can cause one's downfall if pressed unwisely and in defiance of natural law. Icarus is seen to symbolize man reaching defiantly or even foolishly for heights he cannot or should not attain. Redon and others sometimes equated Icarus with the archangel Lucifer, who in early Christian lore challenged God for dominion over heaven. He and his host were defeated and cast down into Hell, where Lucifer thereafter ruled as Satan.
Redon also thought of Icarus as a symbol for the ambitions and strivings of the creative artist, whose life would be fraught with disappointment and, in its own terms, more likely than not to be condemned to failure. He probably knew Charles Baudelaire's poem Icarus Laments, written in 1862:
...my exhausted arms are impotent
from clasping only clouds.
I have not hollowed out the heart of space
nor touched its boundaries.
Beneath a fiery gaze I cannot meet
I feel my pinions fail.
I burn for beauty, but I shall not have
the highest accolade,
my name will not be given to the abyss
which waits to be my grave.
(trans. Richard Howard, Charles Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal, Boston, 1982, pp. 174-175)