John Singer Sargent's Phaethon
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John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Stairway Side Aisle mural
Center mural

Oil on canvas
Diameter, unframed: 307.3 cm (120 in.)
Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912 and Picture Fund 25.646
Jpg: MFA
(See interactive zoom at the MFA) 
In Greek mythology, Phaethon (also spelled Phaeton)  was the son of Helius who was the Sun god. Helius would ride his chariot across the sky to illuminate the day (He became overshadowed by Apollo who did the same thing -- see Apollo).  

According to legend, Phaeton wanted to prove to his friends that Helius was his father. So one day he went to see him.  "Oh, great Helius, are you truly my father?"  

"Ah yes . . ." Helius said, "I am your father."  

"Prove to me you are my father." So Helius told him he would grant any wish he wanted to prove he was indeed his father. 

"I want to drive your chariot across the sky." 

"Please son," said Helius, "withdraw your wish. Driving the chariot of the sun is a task that only I can do. Not even Zeus can do it."  

But Phaethon pleaded, and his father relented wanting to please his son.  "Do not fly too high or too low. Stay at the middle path." (1) 

So as Phaethon took the chariot up into the clouds, all was going well for a while, but soon the  horses discovered it was a mere boy driving them and they went wild. Phaethon couldn't control the horses and the chariot swooped down close to the earth burning cities, and then sailed up and out into outerspace freezing everything. Zeus saw what was happening and threw a thunderbolt throwing Phaethon from the chariot to save the earth.  

* * * 

Gustave Moreau's PhaethonIn 1878-79, Gustave Moreau gave us a straight adaptation of Phaethon. In his painting, we see Zeus' thunderbolt coming up as a dragon, and the horses are mad and out of control. 

But by 1922, Sargent wanted to give us a more scientific and symbolic interpretation. Remember, it was in 1910 that Halley's Comet came streaking across the sky which captivated an entire public's imagination. Scientists and historians were actively seeking for meteoroid impacts all over the world and signs of other meteorological events. Some were actively looking for a scientific basis for mythological stories. (2) 

So in Sargent's painting, instead of giving us  a field of stars to represent the outer atmosphere where Phaethon has flown into, he gives us the astrological signs of the night sky. The painting is showing us after Zeus' thunderbolt has thrown him.  Phaethon's hair is flowing back like flames with smoke streaming thick beyond. Our poor Phaethon is now hurdling towards the the earth, along with his chariot, just like a meteoroid.  

This is new! Sargent is giving us cutting edge stuff! The idea that the story of Phaethon could be about a large meteor was actually very new, and right in line with what was happening in scientific and popular literature. Sargent's intent was not to give us some outdated mythology, but to interpret it afresh.  


The artist; commissioned by the MFA in 1921 and installed on ceiling side aisle, Huntington Avenue stairway, 1925.

  • See the year in review 1925
  • See Sargent at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 
  • 1) Tommy Albright's Phaethon
  • 2) In 1993, Bob Kobres published "Comet Phaethon's Ride" wherein it looked at the supposition that possibly a large  meteor impact to the earth could have given rise to the mythological story of Phaethon. Specifically he cites a Jesuit scholar, Franz Xaver Kugler, whom proposed this exact theory in 1927. Although this Jesuit's paper post dates Sargent's painting, it is my contention that the idea of it was in the public discourse and there are other cited sources of scientists looking for meteorological impacts on the earth prior to Sargent's painting. A cursory view of retelling the classic story misunderstands Sargent's work completely. 
  • 3) Meteor gif:  Bob's Kobres' front page
Stairway Ceiling Decorations 
Looking straight up

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Sketch for Phaethon

Sketch for Phaethon


By:  Natasha Wallace
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Created 3/25/2002