Art in Metamorphoses: Fall of Phaeton

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Art in Metamorphoses
Centuries of Ovid's Influence
Curated by Natalie Dockhorn


Rubens, Fall of Phaeton, 1605

"'You God of the Gods,
If my annihilation 
Has been decided, why drag it out?
Where are your thunderbolts
To finish the whole thing quickly
If I am to end in fire
Let it be your fire, Oh God,
That would redeem it a little.
I can hardly speak.'"
-Ovid's Metamorphoses

Determined to find his father, and prove that his father is, in fact, Apollo, Phaeton goes to see his absent dad and asks for a favor. Apollo, being a show-off like most Gods, tells his son that he will give his whatever he wishes. Phaeton then asks to drive his chariot and light the sky. Upon this request, Apollo explains the difficulty of the task, his clear concern, and is generally not supportive of the idea. Phaeton, being ignorant and a smart-ass, tells his new-found father, that if they are related then this task should be a breeze.

Setting off, Phaeton proceeds to light the whole earth on fire, destroying everything the in its path. The horses go mad, and Phaeton is out of control. The Earth tells Zeus the above quote and pleads for him to end her suffering by ending Phaeton. Zeus eventually has no choice and throws a thunderbolt into the son of Apollo.

Ruben's painting of this scene is cluttered and confusing, but I enjoy that because I can only image this myth being exactly that. Parents making wrong choices, kids being stupid, and the big man having to think on his feet to end it all...and all of that happening so quickly. I can only think that Ruben's used all of this fast action to paint Phaeton falling from the chariot. Looking at this piece, I don't know where to start. I understand that the bolt has been thrown by the light in the sky, but the horses and and people are everywhere, moving in terror and hoping not to get burned. I really enjoy the darkness at the bottom of the painting, I think it perfectly fits the falling of Phaeton into the darkness he created.

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