Apelles: Antiquity’s Greatest Painter

Apelles has passed down in history as antiquity’s greatest painter. All his paintings are lost but ancient tales of his deeds and talent still survive.

Apr 22, 2024By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Alexander the Great Gives Campaspe to Apelles,
Alexander the Great Gives Campaspe to Apelles, Charles Meynier, 1822, Museum of Fine Arts, Rennes

“But it was Apelles […] who surpassed all the other painters who either preceded or succeeded him. Single-handed, he contributed more to painting than all the others together”

There is no better introduction to the Greek painter Apelles, than this passage from Pliny’s Natural History. Truly Apelles’s fame in antiquity was legendary. According to ancient sources he lived a rich life having earned the respect and recognition of his contemporaries. He worked for Philip II, Alexander the Great as well as various other Kings of the Hellenistic world. 


As is common with classical painting, Apelles’s work did not survive past the Roman period. Nevertheless, ancient stories of his ethos and talent made it to the Renaissance motivating artists to become the “New Apelles”. Many art historians also suggest that Apelles’s painting survives in Hellenistic mosaics and Roman frescoes from Pompeii


All About Apelles

Alexander the Great in the Painter Apelles’ Studio
Alexander the Great in the Painter Apelles’ Studio, Antonio Balestra, c. 1700, via Wikimedia

Apelles was most likely born in Colophon of Asia Minor sometime between 380-370 BC. He learned the art of painting in Ephesus but perfected it in the school of Pamphilus in Sicyon. The school offered courses in the tradition of drawing and the scientific laws of painting. Apelles stayed there for twelve fruitful years. 


After completing his studies, he became the official painter of the Macedonian Kings Philipp II and Alexander III. He spent 30 years in the Macedonian court, before following Alexander’s campaign in Asia and returning to Ephesus. After Alexander’s death, he worked for various patrons including the Kings Antigonos I and Ptolemy I Soter. He passed away sometime around the end of the 4th century in the island of Cos.  


Apelles was a true pioneer in his field. He published treatises on art and theory and experimented with light and shadow to achieve different effects in novel ways.  In a portrait of Alexander, he darkened the color of the background and used lighter colors for the chest and face. As a result, we can say that he invented a kind of a premature chiaroscuro

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He used only four colors (tetrachromia): white, black, red, yellow. Nevertheless, it is likely that he also employed light blue; a color used by painters even before him. Despite his limited palette, he achieved unmatched levels of realism. According to Pliny, this was partly due to a new black varnish he invented. This was called attramentum and helped preserve the paintings and soften their colors. Unfortunately, we will never know its recipe because Apelles kept it a secret. Some sources though it could be a combination of black dye and burnt ivory.

A Master of Realism

Detail showing Alexander from The Alexander Mosaic
Detail showing Alexander from The Alexander Mosaic, a possible imitation of a painting done by Apelles or Philoxenus of Eretria, c. 100 BC, Archaeological Museum of Naples


A basic element of Apelles’s art was Charis (Grace). He believed that geometry and proportion were necessary to achieve it. He was also modest and aware of the dangers of perfectionism. He said that other painters were better than him in everything, yet their paintings were always worse. The reason for that was that they did not know when to stop drawing. 


It is said that he painted with such detail, that a “metoposcopos” (diviner who tells the future based on features of the human face) could tell the year of death of the depicted. In one story Apelles competed with other painters to make a painting with a horse. As he did not trust the judges, he asked for horses to be brought. Finally, he won the contest as all horses only neighed in recognition in front of his picture. 


To perfect his art Apelles practiced daily and accepted constructive criticism. According to Pliny, he would exhibit his works in his studio so that passers-by could see them. At the same time, he would hide behind the panels. That way he could overhear people’s conversations and learn what they thought of his art. One day a shoemaker noticed a mistake in the representation of a sandal and suggested to his friend the proper way of depicting it. Apelles overheard the criticism and corrected the mistake overnight. Encouraged by this, the next day the shoemaker began finding defects in the leg. Apelles could not accept this. He popped his head out of his hiding place and said the proverbial phrase “Shoemaker, not beyond the shoe.”


Apelles and Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great in the Workshop of Apelles
Alexander the Great in the Workshop of Apelles, Giuseppe Cades, 1792, Hermitage Museum


The talent and fame of Apelles attracted the attention of wealthy and powerful patrons. Philip II, the king of Macedon, first discovered the painter and employed him. After his death, Apelles came under the protection of his son Alexander. The last one trusted the painter’s skills so much that he issued a special edict stating that only he was allowed to paint his portrait. This unique privilege was shared with the gem-cutter Pyrgoteles and the sculptor Lysippos. Alexander is also said to have visited Apelles’s studio quite often as he deeply valued not only his skills but also his judgement. 


The emblem of the Stag Hunt mosaic
The emblem of the Stag Hunt mosaic, A possible Roman copy of an unattested painting of Alexander the Great by Melanthios or Apelles, c. 300 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Pella


Apelles painted multiple portraits of Alexander. A notable one included the King next to the Dioscuri while a Nike crowns him with a laurel wreath. Another one presented Alexander in his chariot dragging a personification of War behind him. In addition, Apelles drew many paintings with Alexander as a hero on horseback. He also drew the king’s companions. 


The Keraunophoros

Alexander as Zeus
Alexander as Zeus, Unknown Roman Painter, c. 1st Century CE, House of the Vettii, Pompeii, via wikiart

One of Apelles’s most famous portraits of Alexander is the Keraunophoros. A distant Roman imitation of the work could be the fresco from Pompeii depicted above. The original portrait featured Alexander holding a thunderbolt as a sign of his descendance from Zeus. The thunderbolt was also a reminder that Alexander was the bearer of divine power over his vast empire. The painting was produced for the temple of Artemis in Ephesus which paid a large sum to acquire it.


Pliny says that the thunderbolt was the most astonishing element of the artwork. That was painted in a manner that gave the illusion it was coming out of the frame and towards the viewer. Plutarch liked the Keraunophoros so much that he said that Philipp’s Alexander was invincible and Apelles’s inimitable. 


Campaspe’s Portrait

Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles
Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c. 1740, The J. Paul Getty Museum


Campaspe was the favorite concubine of Alexander and quite possibly his first love. One day Alexander asked Apelles to paint her naked. The painter of course made Campaspe’s portrait, but things became complicated. While drawing, Apelles began noticing the extraordinary beauty of Alexander’s mistress. By the time he finished painting he had fallen in love with her. Later when Alexander realized this, he decided to give Campaspe as a present to Apelles. 


This act was a recognition of Apelles’s importance. Alexander signaled that the painter was in his own respect equally important. His accomplishments in art where so great that Apelles deserved the concubine of a King. 


According to an even more interesting view of the story, Alexander thought that Apelles’s painting was beautiful. In fact, he found it so beautiful that he fell in love with it. The artwork imitated reality to the point that it surpassed it. Consequently, Alexander replaced Campaspe with her portrait. That was the reason he gave her to Apelles so easily; he chose art over reality.


The Venus Anadyomene

Venus Anadyomene painting
Venus Anadyomene, Unknown Roman painter, 1st Century CE, House of Venus, Pompeii, via wikimedia

The Venus Anadyomene (Venus rising from the sea) is considered one of Apelles’s masterpieces. Although the original is lost, we can imagine it somewhat similar to the Roman Venus of the picture above. 


Venus or Aphrodite (the Greek equivalent) was the Goddess of beauty and love. Her birth took place near Cyprus when she rose out of the calm sea. This moment was that Apelles chose to depict. It is said that for this painting he used Campaspe or Phryne as his model. The latter was another courtesan famous for her beauty. According to Athenaeus, Apelles was inspired to draw Venus’s birth when he saw Phryne swimming naked.


The painting eventually ended up in the temple of Caesar in Rome, where, according to Pliny, it sustained minor damaged. Eventually Nero had it removed and replaced with another painting. 


After the success of the first Venus, Apelles decided to create an even better one. Unfortunately, he passed away before finishing it.


The Birth of Venus painting botticelli
The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1485–1486, Uffizi Galleries


The theme of Venus Rising was very influential during the Renaissance. The most artwork from this period are by far Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Titian’s Venus Anadyomeni. 


Venus, painting, Henri Pierre Picou
Venus, Henri Pierre Picou, 19th century, Private collection, via wikimedia


The subject was also popular among artists of the Baroque and Rococo and later the 19th century French academic tradition. 


The Line

The Artist in his Studio, painting, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
The Artist in his Studio, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, c. 1626, Museum of Fine Art, Boston


Apelles maintained an interesting relationship with his rival Protogenes. While the latter was still a young recognized artist, Apelles saw his talent and decided to help him rise to prominence. He then cultivated a rumor that he was buying Protogenes’s paintings to sell them as his own. This rumor alone was enough to make Protogenes famous.


According to an ancient anecdote, Apelles once visited the house of Protogenes but did not find him there. Before leaving he decided to leave a message to alert the host of his presence. He found a large panel, took a brush and drew one of the fine colored line, for which he was known. Later in the day Protogenes returned home and saw the line. Immediately, he recognized the elegance and precision of Apelles’s hand. “This is a direct challenge”, he must have though before taking his brush. In response he drew a line even finer and more precise on top of the previous one. Sometime later, Apelles returned and put an end to the competition. He drew a line within the previous two that was nearly invisible. No man could possibly surpass this. Apelles had won. 


Protogenes accepted his defeat but went one step further. He decided to keep the panel as a souvenir of the competition between great masters. The painting was later displayed in the palace of Augustus on the Palatine hill of Rome. Pliny admired it with his own eyes before it was lost in a fire in AD 4. He describes it as a blank surface with three lines that “escape the sight”. Yet it was esteemed higher than any of the other elaborate paintings there.  


The portrait of Antigonos

Apelles Painting Campaspe
Apelles Painting Campaspe, Willem van Haecht, c. 1630, Mauritshuis


Apelles was also inventive. One of his most brilliant moments comes from his time working for the Macedonian King Antigonus I ‘Monopthalmos’. Monopthalmos in Greek translates as One-Eyed since the king had lost his left eye in battle. This was a real problem for every artist who would make his portrait. Apelles decided to paint Antigonus in some sort of ¾ or profile in order to solve the problem. This might not seem like a big accomplishment today, but at the time it was. In fact, according to Pliny, this was the first portrait of its kind in the history of Greek painting. Pliny also says that ‘Antigonus on horseback’ was the greatest masterpiece of Apelles.


The Calumny of Apelles

Calumny of Apelles, painting, Sandro Botticelli
Calumny of Apelles, Sandro Botticelli, 1494, Uffizi Galleries 


Antiphilus was the main adversary of Apelles when he was working for Ptolemy I Soter in Egypt. Blinded by envy, Antiphilus decided that if he cannot surpass his opponent, he will take him down at any cost. Then he leaked false information that Apelles conspired to overthrow the king. The slanderer almost succeeded in having Apelles executed but the truth shined at the last moment. The plot was uncovered and Antiphilus became a slave who was then gifted to Apelles. 


The above episode inspired Apelles’s most discussed painting, the Slander. The painting was a vivid allegory of Apelles’s experience. According to Lucian’s essay Slander the painting had the following structure. Seated on a throne at the far-right was a man with Midas-like ears extending his hand towards Slander. Two women – Ignorance and Assumption – whispered in his ears. In front of the King stood Slander depicted as a beautiful woman. With her left hand she held a torch and with her right dragged a young man by the hair. A pale deformed and sick man – Envy – showed Slander the way. Two attendants – Malice and Deceit – supported Slander and decorated her hair to enhance her beauty. The next figure was Repentance. She was crying while looking at the last figure slowly approaching. That final figure was Truth. 


1,800 years later, Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510 CE) decided to bring the lost masterpiece back to life. Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles remained faithful to Lucian’s description and the result (see picture above) was astonishing. The figures remind us of some of Boticcelli’s most famous works like the Birth of Venus and Spring. Especially interesting is the figure of Truth painted naked as every truth must be. 

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.