Phaeton, Apollo’s son, begged his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky. In the hands of the rash youth, who had neither the strength nor the experience to control the chariot, the horses bolted, scorching everything in their path with the sun's heat. The butterfly–winged female figures, personifying the seasons and hours, react in terror as the earth below bursts into flame. Even the great astrological bands that arch through the heavens are disrupted. To save the universe from destruction, Zeus, king of the gods, throws a thunderbolt, represented here by a blinding shaft of light. As the chariot disintegrates, Phaeton plunges to his death.
Rubens painted The Fall of Phaeton in Rome. His study of works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo influenced his evocation of complex poses and a powerful sense movement. The lighting reveals the artist’s attention to Venetian artists as well. Rubens continued to work on the painting over a number of years. He likely found the subject—which warned of the need for personal restraint and responsibility—congenial to his own philosophical beliefs.
Marks and Labels
Probably in the collection of Susanna Willemsens [d. 1657], Antwerp. (possibly General Gansell sale, Christie's, London, 25 February 1775, no. 81 [bought in for £67]). James Du Pre Alexander, 3th earl of Caledon [1812-1855], London, before 1857; by inheritance to his son, James Alexander, 4th earl of Caledon [1846-1898], London; by inheritance to his son, Eric James Desmond Alexander, 5th earl of Caledon [1885-1968], London; (his sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 9 June 1939, no. 24, as by A.J. van Diepenbeck); Mrs. Sanderson, London; S. [Mrs. Gustave] Delbanco, London, by 1954; Gustave Delbanco, London; purchased 5 January 1990 through (Ellin Mitchell, New York) by NGA.
- Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, 1977, no. 7.
- Greek Gods and Heroes in the Age of Rubens and Rembrandt, National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens; Dordrechts Museum, 2000-2001, no. 64, repro.
- Rubens, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, 2004, no. 13, repro.
- Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of more than Forty Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Mss., &c.&c., visited in 1854 and 1856, ..., forming a supplemental volume to the "Treasures of Art in Great Britain". London, 1857: 152.
- Denucé, Jean. The Antwerp Art-Galleries: Inventories of the Art-Collections in Antwerp in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Antwerp, 1932: 197.
- Jaffé, Michael. "Rubens in Italy: Rediscovered Works." The Burlington Magazine 100 (December 1958): 415-416, 418, repro.
- Held, Julius. Rubens. Selected Drawings. 2 vols. New York, 1959: 1:202, no. 21.
- Alpers, Svetlana. The Decorations of the Torre de la Parada. (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part 9). London and New York, 1971: 254.
- Jacoby, Brigitte. "Studien zur Ikonographie des Phaetonmythos." Ph.D. diss., Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Bonn, 1971: 165-171, 227, no. 171.
- Jaffé, Michael. Rubens and Italy. Oxford, 1977: 30, 36, 71, 80, repros.
- Müller Hofstede, Justus. Peter Paul Rubens 1577-1640. Exh. cat. Wallraf-Richartz-Museums. 2 vols. Cologne, 1977: 145-146, 335, no. 7, color repro.
- Held, Julius S. The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens. A Critical Catalogue. 2 vols. Princeton, 1980: 1:292, no. 210.
- Huemer, Frances. "Rubens and Galileo 1604: Nature, Art, and Poetry." Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 44 (1983): 186, 188, 192.
- Jaffé, Michael. Rubens: Catalogo Completo. Milan, 1989: 75, 156, 157, no. 50, repro.
- Bauman, Guy C., and Walter A. Liedtke. Flemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992: 175-177, color repro.
- Jaffé, Michael. "Samson Destroying the Temple of Dragon: A Rediscovered Rubens." Apollo 139 (December 1993): 382.
- Huemer, Frances. Rubens and the Roman Circle: Studies of the First Decade. New York and London, 1996: 63, 68-71, 133, 241, 246 note 4, color repro.
- Oppenheimer, Paul. Rubens: A Portrait, Beauty and the Angelic. London, 1999: 201.
- Peter Paul Rubens--Barocke Leidenschaften. Exh. cat. Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, 2004: 205, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 146-153, color repro.
- Healy, Fiona. "Loosing Control of the Senses: The Fifth Horse in Rubens's Fall of Phaeton." In Caroline Zöhl and Mara Hofmann, eds. Von Kunst und Temperament. Festschrift für Eberhard König. Turnhout, 2007: 105-118, fig. 1.
- The Editors. "Listings: Agenda." Apollo 117, no. 609 (May 2013): 20, color repro.
Work of Art
Work of Art
- Event Name
- March 1–June 1
- Mon, Tues, and Wed at 1:00
- March 5, 2012 at 2:00
March 7, 2012 at 4:00
- East Building, Auditorium
- Name of docent
- 60 minutes
- Registration for this event begins on April 1, 2012 at noon.
- Download the program notes (100k)
- Italian Collection