Zeuxis: The Ancient Greek Painter & Master of Still Life

Zeuxis, an ancient Greek painter who lived during the fifth century BCE and became famous for his ability to imitate nature and especially still life with his art.

Jun 9, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
zeuxis choosing models painting
Zeuxis Choosing his Models for the Image of Helen from among the Girls of Croton, François-André Vincent, c. 1791, Sotheby’s


Zeuxis (or Zeuxippus) was a Greek painter of the fifth century BCE. He was born in Heracleia of Pontus but lived in Athens where he studied and spent most of his life. He painted idealised human figures but specialised in still life. None of his works survive today as is common with most ancient painters.

In this article we will explore legends about the life and work of the Greek painter.


All About The Ancient Greek Painter: Zeuxis

Zeuxis Selecting Models for his Picture of Helen of Troy, Angelica Kauffmann, 1764, Annmary Brown Memorial Collection.


“The doors of the art, thrown open by Apollodorus of Athens, were entered by Zeuxis of Heracleia” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 35.36)


The goal of Greek art lies in the imitation of reality. Apollodorus was the first artist of antiquity to paint things “as they really appeared” by employing light shading. This technique was called skiagrafia and replaced the previous one of simply drawing an outline and filling it with color. 


Nevertheless, it was Zeuxis that took skiagrafia to new heights. Apollodorus lived to see Zeuxis’s peak and complained that he had “robbed” him of his art by improving it. Zeuxis had beaten Apollodorus in his own game. 

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Zeuxis preferred working with small panels and simple compositions that often included only one figure. Except for walls and panels, he also painted vases and produced a few sculptures of his own. He introduced genre subjects into monumental painting and specialised in still life. 


While he was very creative with color, he did not pay attention to his outlines. Pliny relates that the heads and limbs of his figures were usually enlarged out of proportion. This was a result of Zeuxis’s idealism that sought to capture the essence of human beauty. This idealism led him to develop the composite method of composition.


He placed a lot of diligence in his work. When someone blamed him for painting slowly, he responded that:

“I confess that I take a long time to paint; for I paint works to last a long time” (Plutarch, On having many friends, 5)


Zeuxis’s Wealth

Silver Coin from the City of Athens, 594BC-527 BCE, The British Museum


Zeuxis’s successful career rewarded him with a vast amount of riches; a rare accomplishment for his time. According to a story, the Macedonian King Archelaus hired Zeuxis to paint the walls of his palace in Pella. For this monumental work, Zeuxis received the extraordinary amount of 400 minae (ancient currency). The amount was so great that Socrates commented that: 


“Archelaus had spent 400 minae on his house, to hire Zeuxis of Heracleia to paint it, but nothing on himself (his personal improvement).” (Aelian, Varia Historia, 14.17)


Interestingly he was not humble about this economic success. In fact, his attitude and confidence reached Kanye levels. He boasted about himself being the best painter of all times. He even appeared in the Olympic Games with his name embroidered with golden letters on his clothes. Moreover, he gave away many of his works for free because he believed that they were priceless. 


Once he drew an athlete and wrote beneath the figure: 

“Easier to criticize than to imitate.” (Pliny, Natural History, 35.62)


Plutarch attributes this line to Apollodorus but that is not important. What matters is that even if Zeuxis did not come up with it first, the phrase perfectly captured his personality.  


Death by Laughter


Zeuxis’s uncommon life had a fittingly uncommon end. According to Pliny, Zeuxis made the portrait of an old woman, who was extremely funny looking. Zeuxis’s art had the power of capturing the essence someone’s beauty. This time though it captured the essence of whatever made the woman funny. When Zeuxis finished painting, he took a good look at the painting and burst out laughing. He laughed so hard that that he choked and died. Thus, he became one of the few people in history to die from… laughter.


Even if dying of laughter seems absurd, it is possible. However, it is more probable that Zeuxis’s death is fictional. Ancient grammarians often made up death stories that were fitting the life of great historical figures. In Zeuxis’s case, the story could be an homage to the painter’s extraordinary imitation powers that eventually worked against him.


Self-Portrait at an Easel Painting an Old Woman, Aert de Gelder, 1685, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, via WGA


Zeuxis’s death became the inspiration for this self-portrait by Dutch painter Aert de Gelder. The artist depicted the episode in a straightforward manner with the old lady and her painting clearly visible.


Self-Portrait, Rembrandt’s Laugh, c. 1668, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud


This is one of Rembrandt’s famed self-portraits. In the painting Rembrandt makes no effort to hide his old age. He stares at the viewer while laughing. This might not make much sense until we notice the old lady on the far left. Then it becomes evident that Rembrandt has painted himself as Zeuxis in his final moments. 

Maybe in this painting we see Rembrandt’s wish to get an end like Zeuxis’s; an end where he dies painting and laughing after having earned his place in the pantheon of the Great Masters.


The Contest with Parrhasius

Parrhasius Deceives Onlookers with a Painting of a Veil over a Painting, Johan Jacob von Sandrart after Joachim von Sandrart, 17th century, Welcome Collection, London


Zeuxis would have been the greatest painter of his time if it wasn’t for his adversary Parrhasius. The two of them competed in painting but also in vanity (Parrhasius reportedly wore a golden crown). 


According to an ancient legend, the two adversaries participated in a painting competition. There Zeuxis painted an incredibly life-like bunch of grapes. The work was so successful that birds mistook the grapes for real and tried to eat them. Zeuxis naively thought that he had won. Filled with arrogance, he turned to look at Parrhasius’s work only to find that a curtain was covering it. Zeuxis impatiently asked Parrhasius to lift the curtain and reveal his work. Parrhasius’s response was devastating. The curtain was not covering the painting. The curtain was the painting. Zeuxis accepted his defeat for while he had deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, a human and an artist. 


This is the most famous story about illusionism or trompe-l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”). In ancient painting this meant creating the illusion of the third dimension on a two-dimensional surface with shading and perspective. Today we are so used to different types of visual illusionism that it rarely surprises us. However, people in Zeuxis’s time were untrained in the magic of perspective. The life-like images of Zeuxis were a breakthrough in the experience of visual art. A breakthrough so powerful that it even challenged reality itself (e.g. painted grapes deceive birds).


A similar breakthrough took place in 1896, when spectators screamed in horror while fleeing a theatre in Paris. This was their response to the moving images of a train in Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896). That was the first-time an audience experienced the illusion of the moving image and the birth moment of cinema…

The Child and the Grapes

Encaustic Painting Representing Zeuxis’ Grape and the Birds, Johann Georg Hiltensperger, 1842, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg. 


In another similar legend, Zeuxis painted a child holding a bunch of grapes. When he finished, some birds “attacked” the painting and attempted to eat the grapes. Zeuxis had deceived nature once again, yet this time he was not pleased. To everyone’s surprise, he announced that the painting was a failure. Why? Because, if he had painted the child correctly, it would have scared the birds away. 


Revivals of Zeuxis’s Grapes 

Still Life with Grapes and a Bird, Antonio Leonelli (da Crevalcore), ca. 1500–1510, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


In many ways Zeuxis is one of the fathers of the European trompe-l’oeil tradition. This tradition was passed down to the Romans and can be seen in the frescoes of Pompeii. The legend of Zeuxis was revived during the Renaissance and since then it grew steadily. 

The above painting by Leonello is one of the first still lifes in European art. The painter clearly uses the grapes and the bird to refer to Zeuxis and his contest with Parrhasius. 


Still Life with four Bunches of Grapes, Juan Fernández “el Labrador”, ca. 1636, Museo Del Prado


Still life artists painted grapes and elaborate curtains to refer to Zeuxis’s competition with Parrhasius. This is certainly the case with this image. Fernández, whom his contemporaries called “new Zeuxis”, painted grapes with extreme precision. In this painting he managed to balance the dark background with the careful use of lighter details. This way he showcased different grape varieties and even levels of maturity.


Two Bunches of Grapes with a Fly, Miguel De Pret, 1630-1644, Museo Del Prado


The quest for the imitation of reality has traditionally thrived in the Low Countries since the Renaissance. In addition, during the Baroque period, still life became a favoured theme. Flemish artist Miguel de Pret made a few paintings of grapes quite like the ones of Fernández from before. There is also a painting by Van der Meer on the same subject.


The Hippocentaur 

A Centaur Family, Jan Collaert II after Jan van der Straet, 1578, British Museum


In his essay Zeuxis and Antiochus, Roman writer Lucian pretends to worry that his speeches are valued for their novelty and not their technique. He says that he feels just like Zeuxis when he painted The Hippocentaur which depicted a family of centaurs. According to Lucian, when Zeuxis exhibited the painting in Athens, it received a lot of praise. However, people only praised the originality of the subject and completely overlooked the painter’s artistic skills. Understanding that the audience was preoccupied with the content and ignored the form Zeuxis said to his pupil Miccio:  


“Oh, pack it up, Miccio and you and the others take it home ; these people are delighted with the earthy part of the work ; the questions of its aim, its beauty, its artistic merit, are of no importance whatever; novelty of subject goes for much more than truth of rendering.” 


Lucian provides a detailed description of the painting itself. In the centre of the scene was a female centaur nursing a pair of infant centaurs. In the background and on the upper part of the image was a male centaur – the father. He held a lion in his right hand to terrify his children as a joke.


This was the first time in ancient art that someone depicted a female centaur. In Greek mythology centaurs were always male presented as brutes who rape and pillage. They symbolised barbarism as well as the irrational forces of nature (with the exception of Chiron). This is the reason why Zeuxis’s painting really surprised the Athenians. A centaur family and a female nurturing mother centaur was a radically new conceptualisation of these mythical beings. 


Helen and the Composite Method of Composition by Zeuxis

Zeuxis Choosing his Models, Nicolas André Monsiaux, 1797, Art Gallery of Ontario


Zeuxis wanted to make a painting of Helen of Troy but could not find a model for this work. Eventually he concluded that nothing found in nature is perfect in all its parts. Helen was a legendary figure existing in the epic tales of Homer. Therefore, she was not a real woman but rather the embodiment of an ideal; the ideal of female beauty. 


Finally, Zeuxis selected five women to be the models for his Helen. He combined their most beautiful characteristics and created an image of a woman that he considered ideally beautiful. This composite method of composition became the cornerstone of the Greek Ideal Realism (the creation of ideal images attributed realistically).


Zeuxis’s Helen, as expected, was among the most famous paintings of the time. Zeuxis himself claimed that it was the best work ever made. For this reason, he exhibited it and charged a fee for those who wanted to see it. This contributed greatly to his wealth but had a negative effect on the painting as people began calling Helen an “hetaira” (a type of prostitute).  

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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.