According to myth, Phrixos and his sister Helle were the children of Athamas, a king of Boeotia, and his first wife, the nymph Nephele. Athamas tired of Nephele and later married Ino. When the stepmother plotted against the children, Nephele provided the means of their escape, a golden-fleeced ram that would carry the two across the sea. Along the way Helle fell off and drowned. The body of water in which she perished is named for her, the Hellespont. Phrixos arrived safely in Kolchis on the Black Sea. In an act of gratitude he sacrificed the ram to Zeus. The local king Aeetes took him in and Phrixos married his daughter Chalciope. The grateful Phrixos gave him the golden fleece, which the king then hung in a grove guarded by a dragon. It is this very fleece that was the object of the quest of Jason and his Argonauts (see Carpenter, Art and Myth in Ancient Greece, p. 183 and Henle, Greek Myths, A Vase Painter's Notebook, p. 103).
According to Carpenter (op. cit.) "the earliest certain depiction of Phrixos on the ram is a fragment of a marble relief from Olympia circa 500, and it is not an uncommon subject on vases throughout the 5th century." The present example, attributed to the Pan Painter, may be the earliest surviving representation on a vase. For other depictions, where he is shown either clinging to the ram, as here, or riding astride it, see nos. 2-27 in Bruneau, "Phrixos et Helle" in LIMC.
The Pan Painter takes his name from a bell-krater in Boston depicting Pan chasing a boy. Beazley (Attic Red-figure Vase-painters, p. 550) considered him a pupil of Myson, "a mannerist, and connected with the earlier members of the Mannerist Group, but far above them: an exquisite artist."