Apelles

Apelles (active after 350 B.C.) was one of the most prominent ancient Greek painters. None of his works has survived, but they are described by ancient writers.

Sources disagree as to whether Apelles was a native of Cos (Pliny), Colophon (Suidas), or Ephesus (Strabo and Lucian). In the early stages of his career he was a pupil of Pamphilus, the guiding spirit of the Sicyonian school of painting, and Apelles seems to have remained associated with that school. During his mature years he executed portraits for Philip of Macedon, according to Pliny in Naturalis historia (XXV, 93). After Philip's death Apelles became court painter to Alexander the Great. Alexander is said to have so admired Apelles' work that he ordered the execution of painted royal portraits to be made Apelles' exclusive prerogative.

After Alexander's death Apelles found employment in Alexandria at the court of Ptolemy I. He was implicated in a conspiracy to overthrow Ptolemy but managed to clear himself and regain the King's favor. The famous allegorical painting Calumny, described in detail by Lucian and recreated in the 15th-century painting by Sandro Botticelli, was perhaps created in an effort to convince Ptolemy of the painter's innocence.

The many anecdotes told about Apelles by ancient writers suggest a spirited, confident, at times even impudent personality, who was always ready to spar with his critics, including Alexander. On one occasion, when Alexander was discoursing on the art of painting, Apelles advised him to be silent because the boys who served as color grinders were laughing at his remarks (Pliny, Naturalis historia, XXV, 85). Apelles is also said to have told Alexander that his judgment in art was inferior to that of a horse (Aelian, Variae historiae, II, 3). Alexander seems to have taken the remarks in his stride.

As is the case with other Greek painters, no work by Apelles has survived, and what the ancient sources tell about his style is in some ways contradictory. On the one hand, he is described as a meticulous technician who never let a day pass without practicing his art, who outdid his contemporary Protogenes in subtlety of line, who was sensitive to criticism of the detail of his works, who painstakingly calculated the effect of his colors, and whose portraits were so precise that diviners claimed to be able to read their sitters' futures from their facial details.

On the other hand, Apelles seems to have written a treatise or memoir in which he conceded his inferiority to some of his contemporaries in composition and proportion (Pliny, Naturalis historia, XXV, 85) but maintained that they lacked his "charm" or "grace" (Greek, charis), an instinctive quality which seems to have involved, among other things, knowing when to stop working on a painting.

Many works by Apelles—portraits, mythological subjects, and allegorical scenes—are mentioned by ancient writers. The two most admired seem to have been Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite rising from the sea), originally in the Asklepieion in Cos and later placed by Augustus in the Temple of the Divine Caesar in Rome; and Alexander Keraunophoros (Alexander represented as Zeus holding a thunderbolt) in Ephesus. Some echoes of Apelles' works may be preserved in Pompeiian paintings, notably what seems to be a copy of Alexander Keraunophoros in the House of the Vettii.

Further Reading on Apelles

There is no biography of Apelles. The principal sources on Apelles are translated in J.J. Pollitt, The Art of Greece, 1400-31 B.C.: Sources and Documents (1965). Background works on ancient Greek art include Ernst Pfuhl, Masterpieces of Greek Drawing and Painting (1924; trans. 1926; new ed. 1955); Gisela M.A. Richter, A Handbook of Greek Art (1959; 5th rev. ed. 1967); and Martin Robertson, Greek Painting (1959).

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