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Apelles (Ἀπελλῆς) of Kos (flourished 4th century BC) was a renowned
painter of ancient Greece. Pliny the Elder, to whom we owe much of
our knowledge of this artist (Naturalis Historia 35.36.79-97 and
passim) rated him superior to preceding and subsequent artists. He
dated Apelles to the 112th Olympiad (332-329 BC), possibly because
he had produced a portrait of Alexander the Great.
Probably born at
Colophon in Ionia, he first studied under Ephorus of Ephesus, but
after he had attained some celebrity he became a student to
Pamphilus at Sicyon (N.H. 35.36.75). He thus combined the Dorian
thoroughness with the Ionic grace. Attracted to the court of Philip
II, he painted him and the young Alexander with such success that he
became the recognized court painter of Macedon, and his picture of
Alexander holding a thunderbolt ranked with the Alexander with the
spear of the sculptor Lysippus.
Much of what we
know of Apelles is derived from Pliny's Natural History, xxxv. His
skill at drawing the human face is the point of a story connecting
him with Ptolemy I Soter. This onetime general of Alexander disliked
Apelles while they both were in Alexander's retinue, and many years
later, while travelling by sea a storm forced Apelles to land in
Ptolemy's Egyptian kingdom. Ptolemy's jester was suborned by
Apelles' rivals to convey to the artist a spurious invitation to
dine with Ptolemy. Apelles's unexpected arrival enraged the king.
Ptolemy demanded to know who had given Apelles the invitation, and
with a piece of charcoal from the fireplace Apelles drew a likeness
on the wall, which Ptolemy recognized as his jester in the first
strokes of the sketch.
Apelles was a
contemporary of Protogenes, whose reputation he advocated. Pliny's
Natural History recorded an anecdote that was making the rounds
among Hellenistic connoisseurs of the first century CE: Apelles
travelled to Protogenes' home on Rhodes make the acquaintance of
this painter he had heard so much about. Arriving at Protogenes'
studio, he encountered an old woman who told him that Protogenes was
out and asked for his name so she could report who had enquired
after him. Observing in the studio a panel Protogenes had prepared
for a painting, Apelles walked over to the easel, and taking up a
brush told the servant to tell Protogenes "this came from me," and
drew in colour an extremely fine line across the panel. When
Protogenes returned, and the old woman explained what had taken
place, he examined the line and pronounced that only Apelles could
have done so perfect of work; Protogenes then dipped a brush into
another colour and drew a still finer line above the first one, and
asked his servant to show this to the visitor should he return. When
Apelles returned, and was shown Protogenes' response, ashamed that
he might be bettered, he drew in a third colour an even finer line
between the first two, leaving no room for another display of
craftsmanship. On seeing this, Protogenes admitted defeat, and went
out to seek Apelles and meet him face-to-face. Pliny claims that
this very painting had been part of the collection of Julius Caesar,
but was destroyed when Caesar's mansion on the Palatine Hill burned
down. While sketching one of Alexander the Great's concubines,
Campaspe, Apelles fell in love with her. As a mark of appreciation
for the great painter's work, Alexander presented her to him.
Apelles is said to have been working on a painting of Aphrodite of
Kos when he died, and the painting was left unfinished for no one
could be found with skill enough to complete it.
The physician and
philosopher Sextus Empiricus wrote that Apelles attained a state of
Ataraxia while trying to paint a horse's foam.