Apelles - the greatest painter of antiquity
by John J. Popovic, from Pliny the Elder and other fonts
There comelier forms embroidered rose to view
Than e'er Apelles' wondrous pencil drew.
Aristo: Orlando Furioso, book XXIV
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 Cos. 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
This mural from Pompeii is based on Anadyomene Venus, a lost painting by Apelles.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.