While “The Fall of Phaeton” feels visceral, like the crash of a meteor, or a high speed car chase ending with a vehicle plummeting over the side of a bridge… there’s also something very pleasing about it — perhaps it’s the sunlit color scheme with blues and golds or perhaps something else. My feeling is not just in the presentation of the content but the content itself.
In other words, it’s not just a “beautiful” battle painting… but the unfolding of a story. Sure, there are lots of contemporary paintings (fantasy paintings in particular) that depict epic battles with photo-realistic qualities. Yet, many of those artists will go unknown. Will they be unknown despite their vast technical skill simply because they didn’t do it 400 years ago, or would the work of Peter Paul Rubens’ be as timeless if done today as it was when he first did it.
I suspect the renown has more to do with Peter Paul Rubens’ eye for drama than simply his skill as a painter. Aside from the sense of motion and disarray that his image conveys, the main thing that makes it powerful is all of his characters in the midst of external conflict with one another and the environment.
Going further, it isn’t simply some random trivial event that all are responding to, but a traumatic wreck up in the sky. However, if Rubens were to depict a trivial event, I imagine he’d do it with such attention to detail that it would convey a similar sense of power because he is as much the “student” of human nature as he is of the painting medium. As a point of reference to illustrate the point… check out Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Night Scene”.