This painting, by the Dutch artist Gerard de Lairesse (c. 1641–1711), was inspired by Greco-Roman myth. The young woman in the center of the painting represents the divine personification of dawn, known as Eos in Greek mythology, and Aurora to the Romans. Above her, riding on a horse-pulled chariot, is a figure that Gerard de Lairesse labeled as the god, Apollo. However, it is usually the god, Helios, who is connected with the chariot of the sun and its interaction with Dawn. Nevertheless, to the artist’s credit, both Helios and Apollo were associated with the sun and they also shared the nickname, Phoebus, which often made the two deities interchangeable. As can be seen in the painting, the Phoebus god worked together with Aurora every morning to bring about the sunrise. This was described by the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), who wrote of the chariot of the sun and its connectivity to Aurora through the viewpoint of Helios’ son, Phaëthon:
“The axel and pole were constructed of gold, and golden too
was the rim encircling the wheels, which were fitted with spokes of silver
Chrysolites, jewels arranged in a pattern along the yoke,
reflected their brilliant splendour on shining Phoebus himself.
And while self-confident Phaëthon studied the car in amazement
at such workmanship, Dawn [Aurora] was awake to open her purple
gates in the glimmering east and bathe her forecourt in roseate
glory.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2.107-114).
It is this coordination between Aurora and the Phoebus god on his daily ride in the chariot of the sun that inspired Gerard de Lairesse’s painting. Interestingly, despite painting two deities on the canvas, the artist left out some of the more supernatural elements that could be expected of such a scene. Although the chariot of the sun is involved, the radiant sphere is nowhere to be seen, nor is the lighting all that bright in the painting. On a similar note, while the chariot’s team of horses take up a large portion of space on the canvas, Gerard de Lairesse decided to minimize the otherworldliness of the mythical creatures by leaving out one of their most memorable features—the ability to breathe fire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.