Phaeton, the Sun-god Apollo's son, had begged and begged his father to allow him to drive the Chariot of the Sun across the sky. After Apollo finally conceded, his worst fears were confirmed: the rash youth had neither the strength nor the experience to control the chariot and keep it on its regular course through the heavens. The horses bolted in an erratic pattern, so that Earth either froze because the Sun Chariot was too far away, or it was scorched by the Sun's heat. At left, the Horae, butterfly-winged female figures personifying the seasons, which represent the harmony and order of the universe, are reacting in terror as Earth below bursts into flame. Even the great astrological bands that arch through the heavens are disrupted. Outside the picture frame, Jupiter, the supreme god, has just unleashed a thunderbolt aimed at Phaeton in order to save the universe from complete destruction. As the chariot disintegrates and the horses tumble apart, Phaeton plunges to his death.
The story of Phaeton's hubris and subsequent destruction appealed to artists of the period not only for its drama character but also for its allegorical and moralizing implications. Generally, in 16th- and 17th-century publications of the Metamorphoses, the Phaeton legend was seen as a parable on the devastating consequences of pride and lack of moderation. In 1604, Dutch art theorist Karel van Mander interpreted Ovid's story as a recommendation "to keep the middle of the road/steering not too high nor too low." He also presented a political interpretation of the story, noting that the myth teaches us "how damaging it is that sometimes, when children or childlike rulers reign over countries, they cause not only their own ruin, but also that of their community." Such moralizing ideas may underlie Rubens's expressive scene, but his primary interest seems to have been to exploit the full pictorial possibilities of this cosmic drama. A number of pentimenti (changes of composition), visible to the naked eye, indicate that he worked on The Fall of Phaeton over a long period of time. For example, Rubens painted over some of the horses' tangled straps and reins.
Around 1600, Rubens, who had been trained in classical ideals and philosophy, travelled from Antwerp to Italy. In his travels to Venice, Mantua, Genoa, and Rome, he not only studied the cultural riches and artistic movements of antiquity and the great Renaissance masters –among them Tintoretto, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo– but also absorbed the contemporary innovations introduced by artists such as Caravaggio. The inspiration he gained from this multifaceted exposure profoundly affected his own style of painting and became the foundation for his work. The dramatic light, powerful sense of movement, and complex poses in The Fall of Phaeton all exhibit Rubens's genius at assimilating that wide range of pictorial styles and visual motifs and his ability to infuse these with a new dynamism.