Ross Watson's recent painting featuring Australia's Olympic Gold Medal diving champion Matthew Mitcham is based on The fall of Phaeton by Sebastiano Ricci.
In the painting by Ricci, Phaeton, son of the sun-god Helios (or Apollo according to which version of mythology you favour), is falling from the sun chariot, as represented in Watson's painting by the falling horses. Watson has cleverly placed Matthew Mitcham in the bottom foreground of the painting – not in his usual pose of diving down, but this time rising up: perhaps to catch the falling Phaeton? It is a brilliant move by Watson to turn Mitcham 'upside-down' – that is, right way up! A lesser artist might have portrayed Mitcham as Phaeton himself. But no – Phaeton is falling and not diving: unlike Mitcham when he descends head-first, Phaeton is not in control. Watson introduces Mitcham as a new element that does not appear in Ricci's original work.
No representation of Watson's painting can capture its vibrant colours – particularly the background turquoise. Is this Watson's acknowledgement of the water in which Mitcham is triumphant? Or is it to represent the notion of cool water in opposition to the heat of the sun?
In Watson's painting we have the progeny of the sun-god falling into the arms of a 'water-god': a wonderful juxtaposition of opposites. It is Mitcham and not Phaeton who shines in this work.
Professor Martin Comte OAM, PhD