The arts have a tendency to become reflexive, expressing themselves about their art. Writers quite often write about writers, and many movies are about movies and their making (some of the best, too). Painting is almost an exception to this – at least until it turned inward in the twentieth century – with relatively few paintings about painting, other than portraits of other painters, of course.
A notable exception is Apelles of Kos, one of the most renowned of the great painters of ancient Greece. Claimed to have been active around 330 BCE, he has been attributed at least eight major works. Among these are Aphrodite Anadyomene, in which the goddess Aphrodite rises from the sea. This achieved fame in part because his model for Aphrodite was a former mistress of Alexander the Great, Campaspe (according to the writings of Pliny the Elder).
Another was a great allegory of Calumny, of which more is below. He also painted several myths and legends, and portraits of both Alexander the Great and his father Philip.
The snag with Apelles’ paintings is that none survives.
Although several were taken to Rome, and it is claimed that at least one survived as a copy in the ruins of Pompeii (above), all that remains of Apelles’ works are the textual descriptions in classical writings. Nevertheless, on the strength of that very limited evidence, it has long been accepted that Apelles was a great Master, and there are many paintings which either depict Apelles at work, usually painting Campaspe, or which revisit the allegory of Calumny.
Apelles and Campaspe
The story of Apelles and Alexander’s former mistress (or concubine) is straightforward. When Apelles was sketching or painting Campaspe, he fell in love with her. Alexander, in his generosity and as a mark of appreciation of Apelles’ work, presented Campaspe to Apelles. She is claimed to have been the model for his famous painting of Aphrodite, which was in turn inspiration to Botticelli for his Birth of Venus.
Willem van Haecht’s extraordinary Apelles painting Campaspe (c 1630) tucks the story down in its lower left, where Apelles is shown painting a rather bored Campaspe while Alexander (wearing distinctive armour) looks on. That is then set in a painted account of the history of painting since, with miniature versions of nearly forty paintings in that room alone, and more in further rooms beyond. Although an enormous anachronism, it develops the core narrative into something much more worthy of painting.
A member of the circle of Antonio Balestra painted an even simpler story, in their Alexander the Great in the Painter Apelles’ Studio (c 1700), by omitting Campaspe altogether. Although their faces show emotion in their expressions, and there is good body language, it is hard to compose those into anything more than their astonishment at how good (mimetic) Apelles’ painting is.
Nicolas Vleughels’ Apelles Painting Campaspe (1716) is perhaps a little closer to any underlying truth in the story. A servant leans down to adjust a cushion on which Campaspe’s right foot rests. Apelles concentrates on the painting in progress, while Alexander and one of his colleagues watch, whispering to one another. However Vleughels has interesting ideas as to how Apelles would dress when working in his studio.
Tiepolo’s Alexander the Great and Campaspe in the Studio of Apelles (c 1740) perhaps reflects his own troubles with ennui among his models, with Campaspe, her maid, and Alexander looking thoroughly unimpressed with the artist’s slow progress, working at an unusual and highly anachronistic tondo (round canvas).
Charles Meynier, in his Alexander the Great Gives Campaspe to Apelles (1822), is one of the few painters to have taken the story to its conclusion, as Alexander gives Campaspe to a supplicant Apelles, his right hand clutching his breast to express his love for her, and his brushes scattered in symbolic disarray on the carpet.
The Calumny of Apelles
Rivalry between painters in Apelles’ day could become intense, and at times underhand methods were called into play. One of Apelles’ rivals accused him of taking part in a conspiracy against Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals. This almost led to Apelles’ execution, but the artist instead expressed himself in his painting of Calumny, in which an innocent youth is falsely accused by Ignorance, Envy, Treachery, and Deceit.
Inspired by Lucian’s description of the painting, in his ekphrasis, Botticelli’s intricate Calumny of Apelles (c 1496-7) tries to reconstruct the allegory.
The youth who is the victim of the calumny is being dragged by his hair, clad only in a loincloth, with his hands pressed in prayer. On the throne at the right, perched on a dais, sits Midas, with ass’s ears, extending his right hand towards the distant figure of Slander. On either side of Midas are Ignorance and Suspicion, speaking simultaneously in those ears.
Slander is shown as a beautiful woman, holding a blazing torch in her left hand, and the accused’s hair in her right. At her left, between Slander and Midas, is Envy, who reaches his left hand out towards Midas’ eyes. The two women attending Slander are Fraud and Conspiracy. To the left is Repentance, dressed in deep mourning, her clothing in tatters. She glances back at the naked Truth, who looks up to the gods.
This is all dependent on knowing what each of the figures represents, of course; without that key, the allegory would remain obscure.
Among the few paintings about paintings, even fewer develop the simple story of Apelles to set it in the overall history of painting: only van Haecht seems to have painted that bigger picture.
Botticelli’s recreation of Apelles’ allegory of calumny relies on the viewer identifying the meaning of the figures, which is most unlikely from the painting alone. Although it appears faithful to Lucian’s ekphrasis, we have no idea how faithful it might have been to Apelles’ original. Apelles’ survival on reputation alone is remarkable, and perhaps the safest route to being the greatest and oldest Master of all.