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Johann Liss, The Fall of Phaeton

Key facts
Full title The Fall of Phaeton
Artist Johann Liss
Artist dates about 1595 - 1631
Date made about 1624
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 126.5 × 110.3 cm
Acquisition credit Presented by the Trustees of Sir Denis Mahon's Charitable Trust through the Art Fund, 2013
Inventory number NG6641
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
The Fall of Phaeton
Johann Liss

Phaeton, son of the sun god Phoebus, persuaded his father to let him steer his chariot, which was led by fire-breathing horses, across the sky. Phaeton’s reckless driving caused rivers to dry up and lands to become desert. Jupiter, ruler of the gods, intervened to prevent further chaos, striking thunderbolts at the chariot and smashing it to pieces, casting Phaeton to his death.

In this painting, a group of water nymphs clutch each other in fear, one gesticulating in horror at the sight. The winged figures on the hillock to the right are the Heliades, Phaeton’s sisters, who gesture helplessly, unable to save their brother. The ageing figure reclining in the foreground represents the river Eridanus, into which Phaeton fell.

Liss made this picture while he was in Italy, and the landscape background seems to be inspired by the countryside around Rome. His focus on the nymphs' naked flesh, painted with rich and free strokes of thick paint, reflects both Italian and Flemish Baroque painting.

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