-- American painter
unframed: 307.3 cm (120 in.)
of 1912 and Picture Fund 25.646
at the MFA)
Stairway Side Aisle mural
In Greek mythology,
spelled Phaeton) was the son of Helius who was the Sun god.
would ride his chariot across the sky to illuminate the day (He became
overshadowed by Apollo who did the same thing -- see Apollo).
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 . . ."
said, "I am
"Prove to me you
So Helius told him he would grant any wish he wanted to prove he was
"I want to drive
"Please son," said
your wish. Driving the chariot of the sun is a task that only I can do.
Not even Zeus can do it."
relented wanting to please his son. "Do not fly too high or too
Stay at the middle path." (1)
So as Phaethon took
into the clouds, all was going well for a while, but soon the
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
burning cities, and then sailed up and out into outerspace freezing
Zeus saw what was happening and threw a thunderbolt throwing Phaethon
the chariot to save the earth.
* * *
1878-79, Gustave Moreau gave us a straight adaptation of Phaethon. In
painting, we see Zeus' thunderbolt coming up as a dragon, and the
are mad and out of control.
But by 1922,
wanted to give
us a more scientific and symbolic interpretation. Remember, it was in
that Halley's Comet came streaking across the sky which captivated an
public's imagination. Scientists and historians were actively seeking
meteoroid impacts all over the world and signs of other meteorological
events. Some were actively looking for a scientific basis for
So in Sargent's
of giving us a field of stars to represent the outer atmosphere
Phaethon has flown into, he gives us the astrological signs of the
sky. The painting is showing us after Zeus' thunderbolt has thrown
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
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
in scientific and popular literature. Sargent's intent was not to give
us some outdated mythology, but to interpret it afresh.
commissioned by the MFA in 1921 and installed on ceiling side aisle,
Huntington Avenue stairway, 1925.
- See the year
- See Sargent at
of Fine Arts, Boston
- 1) Tommy
- 2) In 1993,
Phaethon's Ride" wherein it looked at the supposition that possibly
a large meteor impact to the earth could have given rise to the
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
painting. A cursory view of retelling the classic story misunderstands
Sargent's work completely.
- 3) Meteor
Kobres' front page
of Fine Arts, Boston