Painting is a perishable art. Pigment fades and flakes with the centuries; and the passage of millennia leaves us nothing of painting but dust and memories. From antiquity have survived statues, tombs, mosaics, some murals here and there, artifacts of all kinds, and the sublime monuments of architecture; but of the great Greek and Roman painters, we have no original works.
Perhaps only in Greek pottery can we get an idea of how beautiful the ancient painters must have been, but even this is nothing more than a tantalizing hint. The ancient Rembrandts, Michelangelos, Goyas, and Botticellis have all been lost in the corrosive mists of time. Perhaps the classical masters exceeded in brilliance the lights of the Italian Renaissance; but we will never know. We should be grateful for what little information we have been provided in Pliny’s Natural History. He devotes precious pages to the origin and progress of ancient painting, and provides us intimate details of some of the Greek luminaries renowned for their images.
The greatest of all ancient painters, he believes, was Apelles of Cos. He “was superior to all who came before him, and all would follow him,” says Pliny (XXXV.36.79). We do not know his precise birthdate, but Pliny dates him to the 112th Olympiad (i.e., 332 to 329 B.C.). Not only were his contributions to the art of painting more significant than any other master, but he also wrote a learned treatise on the subject. It is lost, of course, like so many other great works of the classical world. Apelles believed that while other painters could rival him in some areas, his works possessed a special, indefinable quality, which he called χάρις (charis, meaning beauty or grace). And it was this charis that distinguished him from all other painters. We can say this is true of any work of art or literature; the very best things have some intangible, inexpressible quality that cannot be duplicated by any other except the creator.
Apelles had many good things to say about one of his rivals, the painter Protogenes. He believed that Protogenes was, in almost every way, the equal of his own talents; but in one respect, Apelles excelled him. Unlike Protogenes, Apelles knew when to stop fussing with a painting. He knew when to leave it alone. Pliny says,
Sed uno se praestare, quod manum de tabula sciret tollere, [XXXV.36.81]
which means, “but in one way he was superior, in that he knew when to remove his hand from the painting.” How important is this observation! We forget that there is such a thing as fiddling too much with something. There is a time for work and labor; and there is a time for leaving well enough alone. Is this not true? How many creative labors have lost some of their luster from too much poking, scratching, and tweaking! By such means does the neurotic perfectionist deflate his own pastries. I have tried to learn this lesson, and to discipline myself to set down the pen when nothing more can be added to a piece of writing.
But to return to our subject. There is a charming story about Apelles that must be told. The great painter, who lived on the island of Cos, once decided to visit Rhodes to see his rival Protogenes and familiarize himself with his works. When he arrived at Rhodes, he journeyed to Protogenes’s studio; the studio was empty, but there was a large painting evidently in the process of completion. There was also an old woman minding the residence. Apelles asked the housekeeper if Protogenes was present; she told him he was currently away, and asked the stranger to identify himself. Apelles did not give his name, but only said to her, “He will know who I am from this.” He then took one of Protogenes’s brushes and painted a very fine stroke across one of the blank panels.
When the artist returned home from his errands, his housekeeper told him that a man had called in his absence; he did not, she said, leave his name, but he did paint something on one of the panels in his studio. When Protogenes examined the brush stroke that the mysterious visitor had painted, he smiled, for knew at once the identity of his visitor; no one else, he told his housekeeper, could have composed so fine and smooth a line. So Protogenes picked up one of his brushes, dabbed it in a different color, and painted an even finer line of paint above the one Apelles had painted. He then left the house again, telling his housekeeper that, if the visitor returned, she should show him what he had painted.
And when Apelles returned, he saw the competitive line that Protogenes had painted above his own, and felt that he had been bested. So he drew an even finer line than the previous two, but this time painted it perpendicular to the two previous parallel lines. By doing this, his intention was to have the “last word” in this little contest. When Protagenes saw this brilliant dissection, he was truly impressed, and knew that he could make no meaningful response; taking hold of the panel, he roamed the island in an effort to find Apelles and shake his hand. Genius always recognizes genius; and like two mutually orbiting celestial bodies, these great men were bound together by a kind of gravitational pull.
The story is evidently true. Pliny tells us that Protogenes wanted the panel preserved, so that future artists could see the results of this game between the two artistic giants. It was carried to Rome, but was consumed by a fire in the emperor’s palace around 4 A.D. The visitors who saw it were awed by the fact that the lines on the panel were so fine, and so delicately painted, that they were barely visible. To a casual observer, the panel appeared to be nothing more than a large white panel. Yet this fact made it that much more famous, to the extent that it was “prized over all other works” (eo ipso allicientem omnique opera nobiliorem).
Pliny says that Apelles never let a day go by without practicing his craft. From this diligent habit of Apelles, Pliny says, is the origin of the Latin proverb nulla dies sine linea, or “no day without a line,” which is meant to point out the value of continuous effort. Like many great Renaissance artists, he valued the comments of regular people, and knew that their input was essential in getting details correct. He would display his paintings in public, and listen to the comments of passers-by; when Apelles once heard a sandal-maker point out an error in sandal depiction, he immediately fixed the image. But when the sandal-maker found fit to criticize how Apelles had painted a leg, the artist cuttingly responded that a sandal-maker should not speak of things beyond his range of experience. This anecdote, Pliny says, also gave rise to a Latin proverb: Ne sutor ultra crepidam, which literally means, “let not the shoemaker go beyond the sandal.”
But the most amusing stories Pliny relates about Apelles are the interactions between the artist and Alexander the Great. Alexander—being Alexander of course—wanted his portrait painted by the world’s most renowned painter. When he sat in Apelles’s studio, the conqueror could not resist commenting on things he knew nothing about, such as the grinding of the paints and the composition of forms. Apelles rebuked the king, saying that his assistants were laughing at him, and that he should stick to things he knew about, such as armies and campaigns. No one else would have been able to speak to Alexander in this way; and the king took the suggestion without further comment.
There is a famous tale that shows how much Alexander respected the great painter. The king once wished to have a nude portrait composed of one of his favored mistresses, a beautiful girl named Pancaspe. During the course of the composition, the tale goes, Apelles began to fall in love with her; Alexander, sensing this, gave the girl to the artist as a reward for his work. Some say that she was the model for one of Apelles’s most famous works, the “Venus of Cos,” which is mentioned by Cicero in his On the Nature of the Gods (I.27).
This brilliant painting, called the Anadyomene, depicted Aphrodite (Venus) rising from the sea. It was commissioned for the temple of Asclepius at Cos, and later taken to Rome. Sandro Botticelli took the same subject for his own “Birth of Venus,” which he executed in the 1480s. We will never know to what degree the work of the ancient master resembled that of the Renaissance master. But their shared subject links them together, even across the gulf of intervening time, just as if they were competitively drawing elegant lines in succession on blank panels, as once did Apelles and Protogenes.
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