Musee des Beaux Arts begins with an explicit statement of its theme ‘About suffering’ of an individual in the society at large. Auden appreciates 16th century Renaissance artists especially Pieter Brueghel who focuses our attention to a painful phenomenon through his paintings of The Massacre of the Innocents implicitly referred to and Icarus, overtly referred to in the poem. Auden speaks highly of the Old Masters for they understood rightly the nature and dimension of the suffering of an individual. This suffering does not evoke any sympathy in the kindred-breasts. The society remains indifferently nonchalant. Everyone in the society is busy with his own business and appears pinned to the daily routine of life. He has hardly any time to stand, take notice of the suffering of his fellow-man and come to his help. An individual suffers while ‘someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully…..’
Auden is probably referring to The Massacre of the Innocents in verses 10-13. The painting draws our attention to the crucifixion of Christ and the inhuman torture meted out to him in particular and the inhuman brutality between man and man in general. The painting shows that a soldier sitting upon the back of a horse is seen piercing the sides of Christ with a spear in hand. This ‘dreadful martyrdom’ is taken by the society at large as a daily routine hanging of a criminal in some untidy place. Even the animal world represented by the dog and the horse in the imagery is as insentient as the human world. The dogs lead their lives as befit them and the horse is more concerned with getting itself rid of the irritation caused to it by an insect than with the most solemn scene that takes place before its uncomprehending eyes. The soldier appointed to inflict pain upon Christ seems to be an automaton sans kindred feelings of right and wrong, sympathy and empathy, pity and remorse. The soldier is not a man but a machine.
Brueghel’s painting of Icarus of which there is a direct reference in Musée des Beaux Arts has a two-dimensional significance. First of all, the picture shows the world’s indifference to an individual life and death and secondly, the indifference of the world al large to the predicament of an artist. Icarus with the wings tied to his back enjoys a thrill of flight in the open air. But in paeans of joy he, oblivious of the danger, soars near the sun and the wax with which the wings were fixed upon his back melts and he falls headlong into the sea. The sailors on board the ship heard the splash, looked at the drowning Icarus but they did not find it urgent to divagate from their course and come to the rescue of the boy. They sailed on calmly without a jot of concern for the unfortunate boy. The ploughman working in the field near the sea heard the ‘forsaken cry’ of the drowning boy but without any alacrity to save the boy resumed his duty. The sailors appear to be the vassals of their vessels and appear further to be in the roles of serviceable automata. The ploughman in the picture appears to be a machine and not a man. The debacle matters little to him. To resume the work is more urgent than to rescue the boy.
The picture may also demonstrate the poet’s belief that action-demanding supreme artistic or heroic exertion hardly draws any attention of the society at large. Both Daedalus and Icarus, the father and the son, may be taken as the types of the artists who aspire by their imagination and ingenuity to lift themselves above their animal nature and existence. But they too suffer and their throes of sufferings are hardly assuaged and they receive scant attention.