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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.




This mural from Pompeii is believed to be based on Apelles', Venus Anadyomene, brought to Rome by Augustus


This mural from Pompeii is based on Anadyomene Venus, a lost painting by Apelles.


Aphrodite Anadyomene, Pompeii


Aphrodite Anadyomene, Pompeii


Alexander with a thunderbolt, probably a Roman copy of a work of Apelles


"His [Apelles] Aphrodite emerging from the Sea was dedicatd by his late lamented Majesty Augustus in the Shrine of his father Caesar; it is known as the Anadyomene."

Pliny, Natural History (XXXV.91)


The panels, which date from 470-460 BC, are in the National Roman Museum (Palazzo Altemps).


The Calumny of Apelles
Sandro Botticelli


Apelles Painting Campaspe in the Presence of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
Jacques Louis David


Apelles, Alexander and Pancaspe
Charles Meynier


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