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Work The Fall of Phaeton

Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century

La chute de Phaéton

Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photo M. Beck-Coppola

Prints and Drawings
16th century

Gardon Michèle

The horses started with a sudden bound [...]
The studded harness from their necks they broke,
Here fell a wheel, and here a silver spoke,
Here were the beam and axle torn away;
And, scatter'd o'er the Earth, the shining fragments lay.
[...] Phaeton, with flaming hair,
Shot [...] like a falling star [...],
'Till on the Po his blasted corps was hurl'd,
Far from his country, in the western world.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. John Dryden et al.)

The Fall of Phaeton

In order to discover whether he is truly the son of the sun-god, Phoebus, Phaeton asks to test his powers by driving Phoebus's chariot. Terrified by the dizzying height and the fearsome animals of the zodiac, Phaeton abandons the route prescribed for him, descending so low that he causes the Earth to burst into flames. The horrified stars and planets complain to Jupiter (depicted here in the center of the drawing, riding an eagle), who strikes Phaeton and the chariot with a thunderbolt. The horses fall, the chariot breaks into pieces, and Phaeton is thrown into the river Eridanus (the Po). The drawing shows the chariot's four horses (above Jupiter, to the right). Phaeton and his chariot fall from the clouds, while at the bottom of the picture, to the left, the river god Eridanus waits to receive him, stretched out among a bed of reeds. At the bottom right, Phaeton's sisters gather up his body, weeping so copiously that they are turned into poplar trees (Ovid's text describes how their tears become drops of amber).

The Italian masters

A pupil of Lambert Lombard, Frans Floris joined the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke in 1540. He traveled to Italy from late 1541 or 1542 until 1545, copying sculptures and paintings by the Italian masters, including frescoes by Michelangelo and Raphael, in the Vatican, and by Giulio Romano in Mantua. Upon his return to Antwerp, he established a large studio, on the Italian model, with several assistants. Michelangelo's influence is apparent in this drawing of the Fall of Phaeton, although its composition is not based directly on the Italian master's various drawings of the subject. Floris may have been familiar with at least one of these, however, thanks to the engraving by Nicolas Béatrizet (Bibliothèque Royale Albert I, Brussels) after Michelangelo's third version, at Windsor Castle. Certain of Floris's figures echo those of other works by Michelangelo: the river god Eridanus recalls the celebrated pose of Adam on the vault of the Sistine Chapel, and of Tityus in Michelangelo's drawing of the Punishment of Tityus (Windsor Castle).

A cycle depicting the Fall of Phaeton?

In his study of Floris's work, the art historian Carl Van der Velde explains that another drawing of The Fall of Phaeton (in Dresden) was a preparatory study for a series of works, now lost, devoted to the legend of Phaeton. Other versions of the same subject by Floris may be seen in Berlin (Kupferstichkabinett), Dresden (Kupferstichkabinett), and Brunswick, Maine (Bowdoin College). A Departure of Phaeton at the Bibliothèque Royale Albert I, Brussels, may well relate to another painting in the same cycle.


Maldague J. M., "Les Dessins de la Chute de Phaéton chez Frans Floris et Michel-Ange", in Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten-Antwerpen, Jaarboek, 1984, pp. 173-187, repr. fig. 1.
Old Master Drawings at Bowdoin College, cat. exp. Brunswick (Maine), Bowdoin College, 17 mai-7 juillet 1985, n 4, repr.
Velde Carl Van de, Frans Floris (1519-20-1570). Leven en Werken, Bruxelles, 1975, p. 373, fig. 136.

Technical description

  • Frans FLORIS DE VRIENDT (Antwerp, 1519/1520-1570)

    The Fall of Phaeton

    Third quarter of the sixteenth century

  • Pen and brown wash

    H. 23.7 cm; W. 22.2 cm

  • Everhard Jabach collection; recorded in the collection of the King's Chamber, 1671

    INV 21075

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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