Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the studio of Apelles, 1725-26, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
How do you write about a painter whom few have ever heard of; who lived more than three-hundred years before Christ; and who, not surprisingly, has not one, single example of his work which survives? Yet, the man was a legend in his own time, perhaps the first great painter of whom we know very much about. His name was Apelles; and he was born in the fourth century BC (sorry, that's as close as I can come to a birth date). We can thank the famous first-century Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, for the fact that we even know this man's name, not to mention the fact that what little we know about his life and work comes from the same source.
Tile 18, Apelles Painting a
Picture, Nino Pisano, 1334-1336,
Apelles was probably born at Colophon in Ionia (west coast of present-day Turkey). He first studied under Ephorus of Ephesus, then later became a student to Pamphilus at Sicyon (near Corinth), Greece, his work said to have combined Dorian depth with Ionic grace. At an early age, Apelles was attracted to the court of Philip II, King of Macedonia, whom he painted along with the young Alexander (the Great) with such success that he became the official court painter of Macedonia. Although Pliny the Elder was obviously a great fan of Apelles, several hundred years later, the Greek philosopher, Plutarch, was not. He faulted the painter for rendering Alexander's complexion as too swarthy. The closest we have to a surviving work by Apelles was discovered in 1830-34 with the excavation of the House of the Faun in Pompeii (upper image, below). The painting had been described in some detail by Lucian. In any case, Apelles' life's story often sounds more like one from Greek mythology than biography.

Reconstruction of a mosaic of the Battle of Issus 
found in the House of the Faun at Pompeii
said to be based on a painting by Apelles.
Apelles' skill at drawing the human face is related in a story connecting him with Ptolemy I Soter, who became ruler of Egypt after the death of Alexander. As a general under Alexander, he disliked Apelles while they both were a part of Alexander's entourage. Many years later, while travelling by sea, a storm forced Apelles to land in Ptolemy's Egypt. Ptolemy's jester was urged by Apelles' rivals to convey to the artist a fake invitation to dine with Ptolemy. Apelles's unexpected arrival enraged the king. Ptolemy demanded to know who had given Apelles the invitation. Apelles took a piece of charcoal from the fireplace and drew a likeness on the wall, which Ptolemy recognized as his jester from the first few strokes of the sketch. Presumably, the jester had some explaining to do.

Apelles and Protogenes (detail), School of Athens,1509-11, Raphael.
The image of Apelles is a self-portrait. The image of Protogenes is thought to have been posed by Sodoma, Perugino, or Timoteo Viti.
Apelles (as portrayed by Raphael, above, left) lived about the same time as another Greek painter, Protogenes, (above-right) whose work he much admired. The two are often cast as rivals. Pliny tells another story from the first century AD, for which there likewise can be no historical verification. According to the Roman historian, Apelles travelled to Protogenes' home on the island of Rhodes to make the acquaintance of this painter he had heard so much about. Arriving at Protogenes' studio, he found only an old woman who told him that Protogenes was out and asked for his name so she could report who had inquired after him. Apelles, observing in the studio a panel Protogenes had prepared for a painting, approached the easel. He then took a brush and drew in color an extremely fine line across the panel, telling the servant to tell Protogenes "this came from me." When Protogenes returned, and learned what had taken place, he examined the line and pronounced that only Apelles could have done so perfect a piece of work. Protogenes then dipped a brush into another color and drew a still finer line above the first one. He asked his servant to show this to the visitor should he return. When Apelles did, in fact, return and was shown Protogenes' response, fearful that he might be bettered, Apelles chose a third color and drew an even finer line between the first two, leaving no room for another display of painting prowess. Upon seeing this, Protogenes admitted defeat, and went out to seek Apelles, meeting him face-to-face. Pliny claims this painting became a part of the collection of Julius Caesar, but was destroyed when the royal palace on Palatine Hill was destroyed by fire.

Calumny of Apelles, 1496-97, Sandro Botticelli
In another story told by Pliny, Apelles, while sketching one of Alexander the Great's concubines named Campaspe, the artist fell in love with her. As a mark of appreciation for the great painter's work, Alexander gave her to him. This tale, whether true or not, was the one latched onto by a series of Italian Renaissance artists chief among whom were Botticelli (above) and Tiepolo (top) in paying tribute to the one whom they considered the greatest painter who ever lived. Apelles is said to have been working on a painting of Aphrodite of Kos when he died. The painting was left unfinished in that no one could be found skilled enough to complete it.


No comments:

Post a Comment