The Fall of Phaeton

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After a design based on an etching by Antonio Tempesta (1555–1630), The Fall of Phaeton (Phaetontis casus) from Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Possibly woven at the workshop of Gabriel Babonneix (born 1756?) at the Manufacture Royale d’Aubusson
France, Aubusson

The Fall of Phaeton, after 1776

Wool and silk, slit and double interlocking tapestry weave
351.2 x 286.3 cm (138 1/4 x 112 3/4 in.)
Gift of William Deering Howe, 1943.1231

Phaeton’s overweening ambition to guide his father’s chariot of the sun through the sky is recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as is the disastrous outcome of his attempt, here presented in a dramatic scene that captures the tumultuous moment of Phaeton’s being struck down by a thunderbolt from Zeus. The scalloped valance and matching side curtains that frame the scene link it to The Arrival of Telemachus on Calypso’s Island, which hangs nearby. The two tapestries are part of a Story of Telemachus suite based on François Fénelon’s Adventures of Telemachus (Les Aventures de Télémaque; 1699), which was originally written as an ethical guide for the education of Louis, Duke of Burgundy (1618–1712), the grandson and heir of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715). Phaeton’s story—particularly his death, as depicted in this tapestry—conveys the consequences of youthful intrepidity and pride, and like the tapestries’ source material, offers viewers a powerful moral lesson.

— Exhibition label, The Divine Art: Four Centuries of European Tapestries, November 1, 2008–January 4, 2009, Regenstein Hall.