The present lot is a modello for Solimena's large ceiling painting in the Palace of Count Wirich Daun in Vienna (now the Daun-Kinsky Stadtpalais), which was designed by the Austrian architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668-1745) and constructed between 1713-1716. De Dominici states (Vite de pittori, scultori, ed architetti napoletani, Naples, 1742, pp. 599ff) that the painting itself was executed during Count Daun's second appointment as Viceroy in Naples, between 1713-19, and thus the modello itself can be dated to these years. The finished painting, which measures 158½ x 283½ in., is in the National Gallery, Prague, having entered the collection there in 1798 through one Countess Kinsky. Another autograph modello of slightly smaller dimensions (34 x 51½ in.) is in the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento (fig. 1), while there is also a copy after it in the Pinacoteca dell'Abbazia Benedettina, Seitenstein, attributed to Daniel Gran (illustrated in the catalogue Settecento Napoletano. Sulle ali dell'aquila imperiale 1707-1734, Vienna and Naples, 1993-1994, no. 81). Spinosa also records another copy (N. Spinosa, Pittura Napoletana del Settecento dal Barocco al Rococà, Naples, 1988, p. 114, no. 40).
The subject of the present work comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses (2, 17-149), and recounts the cautionary story of Phaethon, the son of Helios, the sun god in Greek mythology. Phaethon persuaded his reluctant father to allow him to drive his chariot across the skies for one day. Since the boy did not know how to control the chariot, the ride was fated to end badly. Indeed when Phaethon encountered Scorpion, he took fear and dropped the reins, thus causing the horses to bolt. Jupiter, however, hurled a thunderbolt which destroyed the chariot but sent the boy hurtling to his death in the River Eridanus. This modello depicts the moment when Phaethon asks to drive the chariot of Apollo, who, as the Greek god of light, came to be identified with Helios. Phaethon is seen pointing to the chariot which is being yoked by the Hours (Horae) on the right, while Apollo, on the left, is surrounded by the four Seasons - a shivering Saturn (winter) is huddled next to Bacchus, who places his arm around Vertumnus (autumn), while Ceres (summer) can be seen with arm outstretched beneath the father and son, between whom a young lady, possibly Flora (spring), sits. In the lower half of the composition Aurora scatters flowers symbolic of the dawning of the day. The myth itself was seen as a warning to all those mortals whose hubris leads them to upset the natural balance of the world.