Apelles - the greatest painter of antiquity

by John J. Popovic, from Pliny the Elder and other fonts


"Ne supra crepidam sutor judicaret"

There comelier forms embroidered rose to view
Than e'er Apelles' wondrous pencil drew.

Aristo: Orlando Furioso, book XXIV

Abstract

Apelles from Coos (c 352 - 308 BC) was famous Hellenistic Greek painter whose artwork was held in such elevated admiration by Pliny the Elder and other ancient authors, that he continues to be regarded, even though none of his work survives, as the greatest painter of antiquity. He was appointed as court painter of Philip II and his son Alexander III of Macedon. His works have inspired Italian Renaissance artists to emulate them; and Boticelli believed that he was reincarnation of Apelles, in the same measure as the Renaissance was revival of ancient world values.

He was Ionian Greek, from island Coos. He became a scholar at the celebrated Dorian school of Sicyon in southern Greece, where he worked under the painter Pamphilus. His works are said to have combined Dorian precision with Ionic elegance.

This mural from Pompeii is based on Anadyomene Venus, a lost painting by Apelles.
This mural from Pompeii is based on Anadyomene Venus, a lost painting by Apelles.

There are many murals in the buildings of Pompeii. Recent reviews of the site show the buildings and artwork are deteriorating from natural and man-made causes. It will take more than reviews by archaeologists and Home Advisor specialists to preserve the site for future generations. Reconstruction efforts by builders from Home Advisor Reviews are slowly replacing the old building materials but it is a race against time to protect the murals of Pompeii.


Apelles: flglio di Pytheas, di Efeso (Suid. Strab. Luk. Herond.); La denominazione “Cous” (P1. Ovid.) derivò, con ogni probabilità, da questi modi di dire: ‘Apelles quel di Coo'; “Apelles, quello che ha fatto il quadro di Anadyomene a Coo”. Ebbe come maestro in patria Ephoros di Efeso; da Sicione giunse in Macedonia, nella patria cioè del suo maestro sicionio Pamphilos, non più tardi del 340; Alessandro lo condusse poi seco in Asia, dove si fermò in Efeso; mori, pare, a Coo (PFUHL, p. 736). Non può dirsi fondatore o anche soltanto rappresentante di una scuola pittorica ionica, ma neanche esser considerato come puro sicionio. L'essenza storica di A. è già ben còlta e condensata in due osservazioni antiche, le quali potranno ben risalire agli scrittori tecnici del III secolo, ma che a ogni modo riassumevano il sentimento e il giudizio dei Greci su Apelles; quella di Plutarco (Arat. 13), secondo Ia quale egli cercö a Sicione piuttosto la fama che la techne (…); e quella di Quintiliano (12, 10, 6; cfr. PLUT. Dem. 22): [ingenio et gratia... praestantissimus]. I1 suo ingegno naturale - di individuo e di razza - era assai diverso e, in ogni modo, di gran lunga più ampio e ampiveggente delle regole della scuola egli, con quello spirito di adattamento e di assimilazione che contraddistingue spesso il genio, accostô e adattô la sua esuberanza e graziosa leggiadria ioniche entro la cornice razionalistica, intellettuale, scientifica dei Sicionii, senza rinunziare a nessuna delle caratteristiche naturali, e senza respinger nessuna delle leggi della Sofistica applicata alle arti. Può dirsi pertanto che A. cercö di rivivere artisticamente ed assommare tutte le tendenze e tutti gli elementi dell'arte greca (PFUHL, p. 735). Apelles scrisse al suo scolaro Perseus intorno at. la pittura; probabilmente la pittura sua, i suoi canoni artistici contrapposti a quelli degli altri pittori (35, 111); da quest'opera possiamo pensar derivati i giudizi su Protogenes Melanthios Asklepiodoros di 80. Meno attendibile e l'ipotesi che anche gli aneddoti ne derivino; questi, ripetuti a sazietà per Apelles e per tanti altri, in vane epoche e in ambienti varii, o furon raccolti e coordinati da Duride Samio e di li poi passarono nelle opere di Antigonos Caristio, o facevan parte della tradizione artigiana e si trasmettevano oralmente di bottega in bottega (KALKMANN, Quellen, p. 738, 744). — Illam suam Venerem : anche in greco (..) LuK. Scyth. 11; queste frasi possono considerarsi frammenti della sua opera; Plutarco (Demelr. 22) adopera. quasi le stesse parole della fonte di Plinio: (Ov. 1921).


It was Apelles of Cos who surpassed all the painters that preceded and all who were to come after him; he dates in the 112th Olympiad. He singly contributed almost more to painting than allthe other artists put together, also publishing volumes containing the principles of painting. His art was unrivalled for graceful charm, although other very great painters were his contemporaries. Although he admired their works and gave high praise to all of them, he used to say that they lacked the glamour that his work possessed, the quality denoted by the Greek word charis, and that although they had every other merit, in that alone no one was his rival. He also asserted another claim to distinctiontion when he expressed his admiration for the immensely laborious and infinitely meticulous work of Protogenes; for he said that in all respects hi achievements and those of Protogenes were on level, or those of Protogenes were superior, but tha in one respect he stood higher, that he knew when to take his hand away from a picture a noteworthy warning of the frequently evil effects of excessive diligence. The candour of Apelles was however equal to his artistic skill he used to acknowledge his inferiority to Melanthius in grouping, and to Asclepiodorus in nicety of measurement, that is in the proper space to be left between one object and another.

Protogenes and Apelles

A clever incident took place between Protogenes and Apelles. Protogenes lived at Rhodes and Apelles made the voyage there from a desire to make himself acquainted with Protogenes’s works as that artist was hitherto only known to him by reputation. He went at once to his studio. The artist was not there but there was a panel of considerable size on the easel prepared for painting, which was in the charge of a single old woman. In answer to his enquiry, she told him that Protogenes was no at home, and asked who it was she should report a having wished to see him. “Say it was this person”, said Apelles, and taking up a brush he painted incolour across the panel an extremely fine line and when Protogenes returned the old woman showed him what had taken place. The story goes that the artist, after looking closely at the finish of this, said that the new arrival was Apelles, as s perfect a piece of work tallied with nobody else and he himself, using another colour, drew a still finer line exactly on the top of the first one, am leaving the room told the attendant to show it to the visitor if he returned and add that this was the person he was in search of; and so it happened; for Apelles came back, and, ashamed to be beaten, cut, i.e. drew a yet finer line on the top of the other two lines with another in a third color, leaving no room for any further display of minute work. Hereupon Protogenes admitted he was defeated, and flew down to the harbor to look for the visitor; and he decided that the panel should be handed on to posterity as it was, to be admired as a marvel by everybody, but particularly by artists. I am informed that it was burnt in the first fire which occurred in Caesar’s palace on the Palatine; it had A.D. 4. been previously much admired by us, on its vast surface containing nothing else than the almost invisible lines, so that among the outstanding works of many artists it looked like a blank space, and by that very fact attracted attention and was more esteemed than any masterpiece.
For 20 years he enjoyed a reputation second only to that of Apelles. The picture painted during the siege of Rhodes consisted of a satyr leaning idly against a pillar on which was a figure of a partridge, so life-like that ordinary spectators saw nothing but it. Enraged on this account, the painter wiped out the partridge. The Satyr must have been one of his last works. He would then be about seventy years of age, and had enjoyed for about twenty years a reputatio-n next only to that of Apelles, his friend and benefactor. His best-known work was the Ialysus, which was removed by Vespasian to Rome, where it perished in the burning of the Temple of Peace.



Nulla dies sine linea.
Moreover it was a regular custom with Apelles never to let a day of business to be so fully occupied that lie did not practise his art by drawing a line, (i.e. probably an outline of some object) which has passed from him into a proverb: Nulla dies sine linea.

The shoe­maker

Another habit of his was when he had finished his works to place them in a gallery in the view of passers by, and he himself stood out of sight behind the picture and listened to hear what faults were noticed, rating the public as a more observant critic than himself. And it is said that he was found fault with by a shoe­maker because in drawing a subject’s sandals he had represented the loops in them as one too few, and the next day the same critic was so proud of the artist’s correcting the fault indicated by his previous objection that he found fault with the leg, but Apelles indignantly looked out from behind the picture and rebuked him, saying that a shoemaker in his criticism must not go beyond the sandal - a remark that has also passed into a proverb: Ne sutor ultra carpidam!

Alexander the Great

In fact he also possessed great courtesy of manners, which made him more agreeable to Alexander the Great, who frequently visited his studio - for, as we have said, Alexander had published an edict forbidding any other artist to paint his portrait; but in the studio Alexander used to talk a great deal about painting without any real knowledge of it, and Apelles would politely advise him to drop the subject, saying that the boys engaged in grinding the colors were laughing at him : so much power did his authority exercise over a King who was otherwise of an irascible temper.


Pancaspe - Aphrodite Anadyomene

Aphrodite Anadyomene - Palazzo AltempsAnd yet Alexander conferred honor on him in a most conspicuous instance; he had such an admiration for the beauty of his favorite mistress, named Pancaspe, that he gave orders that she should be painted in the nude by Apelles, and then discovering that the artist while executing the commission had fallen in love with the woman, he presented her to him, great­minded as he was and still greater owing to his control of himself, and of a greatness proved by this action as much as by any other victory: because he conquered himself, and presented not only his bedmate but his affection also to the artist, and was not even influenced by regard for the feelings of his favorite in having been recently the mistress of a monarch and now belonged to a painter. Some persons believe that she was the model from which the Aphrodite Anadyomene (Rising from the Sea) was painted. It was Apelles also who, kindly among his rivals, first established the reputation of Protogenes at Rhodes. Protogenes was held in low esteem by his fellow-countrymen, as is usual with home products, and, when Apelles asked him what price he set on some works he had finished, he had mentioned some small sum, but Apellcs made him an offer of fifty talents for them, and spread it about that he was buying them with the intention of selling them as works of his own. This device aroused the people of Rhodes to appreciate the artist, and Apelles only parted with the pictures to them at an enhanced price.
He also painted portraits so absolutely lifelike that, incredible as it sounds, the grammarian Apio has left it on record that one of those persons called ‘physiognomists,’ (metoposkopoz) who prophesy people’s future by their countenance, pronounced from their portraits either the year of the subjects’ deaths hereafter or the number of years they had already lived.

Ptolemy and Antigonus

Apelles had been on bad terms with Ptolemy in Alexander’s retinue. When this Ptolemy was King of Egypt, Apelles on a voyage had been driven by a violent storm into Alexandria. His rivals maliciously suborned the King’s jester to convey to him an invitation to dinner, to which he came. Ptolemy was very indignant, and paraded his hospitality-stewards for Apelles to say which of them had given him the invitation. Apelles picked up a piece of extinguished charcoal from the hearth and drew a likeness on the wall, the King recognizing the features of the jester as soon as he began the sketch. He also painted a portrait of King Antigonus (382 –301BC) who was blind in one eye, and devised an original method of concealing the defect, for he did the likeness in ‘three­quarter,’ so that the feature that was lacking in the subject might be thought instead to be absent in the picture, and he only showed the part of the face which lie was able to display as unmutilated.

Famous paintings
Among his works there are also pictures of persons at the point of death. But it is not easy to say which of his productions are of the highest rank. His Aphrodite emerging from the Sea was dedicated by his late lamented Majesty Augustus in the Shrine of his father Caesar; it is known as the Anadyomene; this like other works is eclipsed a yet made famous by the Greek verses which sing its praises; the lower part of the picture having become damaged nobody could be found to restore it, but the actual injury contributed to the glory of the artist. This picture however suffered from age and rot, and Nero when emperor substituted another for it, a work by Dorotheus. Apelles had also begun on another Aphrodite at Cos, which was to surpass even his famous earlier one; but death grudged him the work when only partly finished, nor could anybody be found to carry on the task, in conformity with the outlines of the sketches prepared. He also painted Alexander the Great holding a Thunderbolt, in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, for a fee of twenty talents in gold. The fingers have the appearance of projecting from the surface and the thunderbolt seems to stand out from the picture - readers must remember - that all these effects were produced by four colours; the artist received the price of this picture in gold coin measured by weight of the panel not counted. He also painted a ‘Procession of the Magabyzus’, the priest of Artemis of Ephesus, a ‘Clitus with Horse’ hastening into battle; and an armour-bearer handing someone a helmet at his command. How many times he painted Alexander and Philip it would be superfluous to recount. His ‘Habron at Samos’ is much admired, as is his Menander, King of Caria, at Rhodes, likewise his Antaeus, and at Alexandria his Gorgosthenes the Tragic Actor, and at Rome his Castor and Pollux with Victory and Alexander the Great, and also his figure of War with the Hands Tied behind, with Alexander riding in Triumph in his Chariot. 130th of these pictures his late lamented Majesty Augustus with restrained good taste had dedicated in the most frequented parts of his forum; the emperor Claudius however thought it more advisable to cut out the face of Alexander from both works and substitute portraits of Augustus. The Heracles with Face Averted in the temple of Diana is also believed to be by his hand—so drawn that the picture more truly displays Heracles’ face than merely suggests it to the imagination - a very difficult achievement. He also painted a ‘Nude Hero’, a picture with which he challenged Nature herself. There is, or was, a picture of a Horse by him, painted in a competition, by which he carried his appeal for judgement from mankind to the dumb quadrupeds; for perceiving that his rivals were getting the better of him by intrigue, he had some horses brought and showed them their pictures one by one; and the horses only began to neigh when they saw the horse painted by Apelles; and this always happened subsequently, showing it to be a sound test of artistic skill. He also did a ‘Neoptolemus on Horseback fighting against the Persians’, an ‘Archelaus with his Wife and Daughter’, and an ‘Antigonus with a Breast­plate marching with his horse at his side’. Connois­seurs put at the head of all his works the portrait of the same king seated on horseback, and his ‘Artemis in the midst of a band of Maidens offering a Sacrifice’, a work by which he may be thought to have surpassed Homer’s verses (Odyssey, VI, 102) describing the same subject. He even painted things that cannot be represented in pictures - thunder, lightning and thunderbolts, the pictures known respectively under the Greek titles of Bronte, Astrape and Ceraunobolia.

Inventions in the art


His inventions in the art of painting have been useful to all other painters as well, but there was one which nobody was able to imitate: when his works were finished he used to cover them over with a black varnish of such thinness that its very presence, while its reflexion threw up the brilliance of all the colours and preserved them from dust and dirt, was only visible to anyone who looked at it close up, but also employ­ing great calculation of lights, so that the brilliance of the colours should not offend the sight when people looked at them as if through museovy-glass and so that the same device from a distance might invisibly give sombreness to colours that were too brilliant.

Aphrodite Anadyomene emerging from the Sea was dedicatd by his late lamented Majesty Augustus in the Shrine of his father Caesar

Pliny, Naturalis Historia (XXXV.91)

The "Ludovisi Throne" is comprised of three panels sculpted in relief. It is thought to be an altar, with Aphrodite rising from the sea, the diaphanous folds of her wet garment clinging to her body.

hetarai playing a double flute


The left panel depicts a hetarai playing a double flute and is one of the very first representations of the monumental female nude. She represents the profane aspect of the goddess. Greek hetarai were the courtesans, doctae puellae. Habitually these mistresses would live with their mothers and sisters, under a lena, or in an apartment provided by their lovers. Unlike prostitutes, courtesans were usually of respectable origin, although some were freedwomen. They did not live with their lovers, but, unlike prostitutes, usually had only one lover at a time.


While the right-hand panel portrays a matron putting incense on a burner, personifying the sacred ritual.


Reference:

  1. Apelles : The Alexander Mosaic by Paolo Moreno
  2. The Heritage of Apelles by E.H. Gombrich
  3. STORIA DELLE ARTI ANTICHE, Plinio il Vecchio --traduzione e testi critici di Maurizio Harari e Silvio Ferri
  4. Natural History (1938-) translated by H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library);
  5. The Geography of Strabo (1929) translated by Horace L. Jones (Loeb Classical Library);
  6. Quintilian: Training of an Orator (1920) translated by H. E. Butler (Loeb Classical Library);

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