Rena Hoisington, Curator & Dept Head of Prints, Drawings & Photographs
In 2013 the BMA acquired a tour-de-force engraving we had long sought for our print collection: Hendrick Goltzius’ Phaeton. The composition, and the moralizing text that elegantly encircles it, draw inspiration from Greek mythology.
Phaeton, son of the god Helios, asked his father if he might drive his sun chariot across the heavens for one day. Helios reluctantly agreed. Phaeton began his journey with eagerness and excitement, but soon lost control of the fiery steeds. The chariot veered too close to the earth, causing it to catch fire. To prevent further destruction Zeus, king of the gods, knocked Phaeton out of the sky with one of his lightning bolts.
In the background of Goltzius’ print one glimpses the plunging chariot, missing one wheel, and four horses helplessly pawing the air. Front and center is the nude figure of Phaeton plunging to his death, his curly locks pulled upwards by the winds swirling around him. The silhouette of his rippling back muscles is echoed in the sinuous lines of the clouds behind him and the billows of smoke from the burning earth below.
Goltzius executed Phaeton in 1588 as one of a series of four engravings entitled The Four Disgracers after the designs of his contemporary Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem. The theme of the series is hubris: each of these characters from Greek mythology has been “disgraced” or punished for aspiring to be like the gods. And yet to experience all four of these prints together—which we can now do at the BMA, thanks to the acquisition of Phaeton—underscores that the series is first and foremost about Goltzius’ virtuosity as an artist. The free-falling figures of Tantalus, Icarus, Phaeton, and Ixion demonstrate variations on a pose shown from four different points of view. Two fall in light, two tumble through darkness. Goltzius employed a complex system of tapering and swelling lines to delineate their brawny bodies, producing sculptural effects that are amplified through dramatic contrasts of light and dark; their figures appear to plummet into our own space.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.