Stubbs sought to elevate the genre of animal painting to that of historical painting with subjects such as Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun. He exhibited two pictures entitled Phaeton at the Society of Artists (1762, no. 109 and 1764, no. 110). An oil of the subject is at Saltram House, Devon, and is the source of Benjamin Green's engraving of c.1765-6 (see C. Lennox-Boyd, R. Dixon, T. Clayton, op.cit., pp. 68-69, no. 3), while the present picture may relate to the source for Green's engraving of 1770 (see C. Lennox-Boyd, R. Dixon, T. Clayton, op. cit., pp. 84-85, no. 8). A Jaspar-ware Wedgwood relief of Phaeton is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery and, perhaps most interestingly, Stubbs chose to be depicted with an enamel of the subject (his largest work in that medium on copper, private collection) in the portrait of him by Ozias Humphry (c.1777, London, National Portrait Gallery, no. 1399).
The subject of the picture is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses and came to symbolise the pitfalls in store for those who aspire to feats beyond their abilities. Phaeton, the son of Helios, the sun-god, persuaded his unwilling father to allow him to drive his chariot across the skies for one day. On meeting the fearful Scorpion of the zodiac, the horses bolted, and Jupiter - fearing the earth itself would catch fire - sent a thunderbolt which wrecked the chariot and sent Phaeton hurtling down in flames into the River Eridanus.