Apelles’ Lost Paintings and How to Tell a Great Work of Art

by Amanda Beth Peery

Birth of VenusIn Pliny the Elder's Natural History, he describes a fourth-century BC painter, Apelles of Kos, as superior to all other painters. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Apelles “continues to be regarded as the greatest painter of antiquity even though none of his work survives.” How is it possible that the artist seen as the greatest painter of all of antiquity is one who left no surviving works? One possibility is that his fame has been expanded by myth and time, and with no works left to show the truth, his skills have been inflated beyond their due. That's probably true, but I believe there's another, more legitimate reason for Apelles' reputation. Apelles' art—often conveyed through the descriptions of ancient writers like Pliny—has engendered other art. One way of measuring the greatness of a work of art is to ask whether it gives rise to other works, or to say it differently, whether or not it inspires.

Apelles of Kos was the court painter of Macedon under Alexander the Great. Pliny recounts various stories about him, many of them gems. In one, Apelles comes to Egypt, then ruled by one of the Ptolemies (the first Ptolemy, I think) whom Apelles once knew. A court jester invites Apelles to a feast at the royal palace, but unbeknownst to Apelles, Ptolemy has long harbored a hatred for the artist and the pharaoh is enraged to see him at the feast. Ptolemy commands Apelles to tell him who invited him. Apelles, who never knew or doesn't remember the jester's name, picks up a piece of charcoal from the cold hearth and begins to draw the jester's face on the palace wall. Within just a stroke (or two), Ptolemy recognizes his jester. Apelles has captured the jester with just a single line.

Apelles is famed not only for his superior skill but also for his dedication to his art. Pliny attributes to Apelles the phrase “nulla dies sine linea,” or “not a day without a line,” because the artist worked every day. Apelles exemplified the artist's lifestyle and was so respectable and respected that he could speak out against Alexander the Great himself. In one story, Alexander is sitting for a portrait expounding his theories on art, going on at length, until the artist quietly begs him to stop because the boys grinding the colors will laugh at him. We don't know what Alexander was saying, but by stopping him, Apelles—in his innocence—asserted the artist's superior knowledge of the craft and maybe even the way of seeing and ways of creating that artists are able to access. Alexander, who had been tutored by Aristotle (who was tutored in turn by Plato, who was tutored by Socrates) cannot rival Apelles'—or the color-grinding boys'—intimate knowledge and experience of art. In this story Apelles rejects the very sources of knowledge in the West. He is insisting that there is another type of knowledge. Or he is insisting, at least, that there are other things to know.

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At the risk of being an Alexander, I want to talk about what makes art good or true. One way to tell good art from the rest, I think, is that it inspires other artists.

The idea that art is immortal and immortalizing is common in the history of art and literature. In epics like Beowulf, for example, the names of heroes are sung to commemorate their brave deeds, and they are thus immortalized. Their stories are twisted and made enchanted over time, and their names have different sounds on modern tongues, but they live on in some form in surviving epics. When authors' names began to be passed down with their works, they too began to seek immortality, or at least inhuman longevity, by creating works that lived on after their death.

But more important than immortality is that a work of art give rise to others, that it passes some small light along and drives people who see it to write, sculpt, paint, or compose. It's possible that this is the only way that art can begin to approach immortality. Immortal things can live in a glass box slowly, eternally withering, but art, I think, is not immortal in the same way. Instead, it carries a certain immortal madness in it that passes from the mind of one artist to another. This madness is what drives artists to rival the gods by daring to create. Or, in today's more banal formulation, it is what we might call “inspiration.” Art begets art.

When Apelles was asked why he “touched and retouched his paintings so continually” he said, “I paint for eternity.” This quote survives while none of his art does. (Some of his paintings were supposedly destroyed in a fire in Caesar Augustus's mansion on Palatine Hill). But his paintings were described by Pliny and by Lucian, and some of them were painted again centuries later, during the Renaissance.

Using the famed concubine Campaspe as a model, Apelles painted Aphrodite raising from the sea, wringing her hair, with silver water droplets veiling around her. According to Pliny, “time and damp” eventually destroyed Apelles' Venus Anadyomene after first washing away the lower half (as though Aphrodite were being gradually reclaimed by the sea). When just the lower half was destroyed, no one with the necessary skill could be found to restore the painting. Some sources say that this was not Apelles' only painting of Aphrodite rising from the sea and wringing her hair. He began another, also using Campaspe as a model, but died before he could finish it. This second Venus Anadyomene was said to be even more beautiful than the first. Apelles left only an outline.

Apelles' beautiful painting, as it was described by ancient writers, was a source of inspiration for Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Maybe, with Botticelli, a painter of the requisite skill was finally found, and the destroyed painting or the unfinished painting could be finished. This was not the only one of Apelles' paintings that Renaissance artists brought back to life from ancient writers' descriptions. Botticelli, for one, also painted “The Calumny of Apelles,” basing his version of the allegorical painting on Lucian's description of the original.

Is it possible that the whole history of art is a series of collaborations over time? Maybe this is only true of great art; that great works are not the product of a single mind but grow over time through the work of many hands and many imaginations. In Moby Dick, Ishmael says “For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand one, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”

I wrote earlier that Botticelli might have finished Apelles' ruined or unfinished Venus. But maybe that's not where the line ended. Maybe the many artists who have been inspired by Botticelli's goddess have continued in an unending process of creation, with the painting taking different forms over time, some morphing so that the goddess is only a hint or a shade, but all, when they are successful, somehow passing on some quality of its exquisite beauty or its glory, or something else at the heart of it.

Jorge Luis Borges writes about how works of art are passed along to other works, sometimes through the medium of dreams. In “The Dream of Coleridge” he writes about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan.” Borges tells the story, based on the poet's own account, of how Coleridge fell into an opium dream while reading about the thirteenth-century Mongolian emperor Kubla Khan's summer palace. Coleridge woke up with a poem of 200 to 300 lines perfectly formed in his mind. He began to write it. After writing just 54 lines, he was interrupted by a person from Porlock, a nearby town, who had come on business, and when he sat back down to finish the poem, the rest had vanished into the mists of a forgotten dream.

Borges writes that what Coleridge did not know and could not have known was that the palace itself came to Kubla Khan in a dream. A Persian source that described the origins of the palace in the emperor's dream only appeared in the West twenty years after Coleridge published his poem. In Borges' gorgeous essay, the Argentine writer says:

The first dreamer was given the vision of the palace and he built it; the second, who did not know of the other's dream, was given the poem about the palace. If the plan does not fail, some reader of “Kubla Khan” will dream, on a night centuries removed from us, of marble or of music. This man will not know that two others also dreamed. Perhaps the series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last one who dreams will have the key.

After writing all this, I perceive—or think I perceive—another explanation. Perhaps an archetype not yet revealed to men, an eternal object (to use Whitehead's term) is gradually entering the world; its first manifestation was the palace; its second was the poem. Whoever compared them would have seen that they were essentially the same.

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Is it possible that art is the gradual bringing-into-being of eternal objects? The story of Apelles' Venus seems to suggest this theory holds water. In some sources, Apelles' second, more beautiful and unfinished version of the painting was only an “outline.” Maybe the ancient description of the painting, another outline, was “essentially the same” as Apelles' work. Maybe even Botticelli's rich recreation was, in its essentials, again the same. (And maybe the third iteration of Kubla Khan's palace was not of marble or of music but appeared in the form of Borges' essay.)

When the caves at Lascaux were discovered, Picasso went to see the prehistoric paintings, preserved from “time and damp” in the caves' long-sealed chambers and passageways. Afterwards, Picasso said, “we have learned nothing in 12,000 years.” (Today it is believed that the paintings are closer to 17,000 years old.) Some paintings on the walls of Lascaux bear an eerie resemblance to Picasso's work, painted before the caves were discovered. The resemblance between the cave art and the modern art of the early twentieth century seems clear to me. Maybe this is evidence of eternal objects, or forms, coming into being.

Plato imagined forms that cast shadows against the walls of another cave. Maybe the objects in the Lascaux paintings flickered up like shadows, or maybe they were spirits emerging from the walls, as some archeologists think the prehistoric painters believed. I think it's interesting that these paintings, like Apelles' last Venus, strike some of us modern viewers as outlines. Many of Picasso's paintings, too, have heavy outlines and simple, stylized forms. Maybe these outlines are, in some way, the core or essence of an object struggling into the world. Apelles captured the nature of the jester's face with one or two strokes of charcoal on Ptolemy's wall.

We don't need to believe in the spirit world or in eternal objects to believe that two works of art, separated by time, can struggle to bring the same thing—often the same otherwise inexpressible object or quality—into the world. I think the art that most often inspires is art that has partially succeeded in bringing something with life in it into the world. But like Alexander, I've been expounding on art in Plato's shadow, and I can only hope that the boys grinding the colors aren't laughing. All I know—or think I know—is that art, when it has life in it, has inspired other artists to risk creating.

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Amanda Beth Peery is an Assistant Editor of History at Princeton University Press. She has also worked in philosophy, literary criticism, and economics at Harvard University Press.

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