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c. 370 b.c.e.–Early third century b.c.e.


Greece's Greatest Painter.

Apelles was probably the greatest artist in the Greek world, though all that survives are descriptions of his works. He gained fame as the portrait artist of choice to some of the most powerful men in the ancient world, including Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great, and Ptolemy I in Egypt. He placed great emphasis on precise line drawing, and every day he made a point of practicing it to maintain his skill. He also used a transparent varnish to preserve his paintings. The exact formula of the varnish is not known, but the word that the historian Pliny the Elder used for it was atramentum (black lacquer) which indicates that it darkened his colors and probably softened them.


Apelles was born either on the island of Cos, or on the Asia Minor mainland at Colopohon around 370 b.c.e. He was thus an Ionian Greek and he trained first with Ephorus of Ephesus who belonged to the Ionian School of artists. He then moved to the Greek mainland to study with the celebrated artist Pamphilus, who headed a school at Sicyon, the western neighbor of Corinth. Pamphilus was famous for charging high tuition fees, but his school had some famous alumni, including the sculptor Lysippus, who became Alexander the Great's sculptor of choice. Apelles learned to combine the precision of the Sicyonian style with the elegance that he had learned in Ionia, and about 340 b.c.e., his reputation was such that he was invited to the court of Philip II, king of Macedonia, where he painted portraits and won the admiration of the young Alexander, Philip's son.

Alexander's Favorite Portrait Artist.

Alexander was the subject of Apelles' most famous portraits, and Apelles helped to create the image of Alexander as a superhuman hero, ruler of the inhabited world. Alexander recognized the value of art in creating an image, and he entrusted his representation to only three artists: Apelles, Lysippus, and the engraver Pyrgoteles. The most famous of the portraits was Apelles' depiction of Alexander as the god Zeus holding a thunderbolt, Alexander as Zeus Keraunophoros, a painting that aimed to support Alexander's claim to deity. Another painting of Alexander showed him with the Victory Goddess, Nike, and another with strong allegorical overtones showed Alexander in a triumphal chariot along with the personification of war, Polemos, whose hands are bound. Both these paintings were later taken to Rome where they were displayed in the Forum of Augustus and later repainted so that Alexander's features in the paintings were replaced by those of Augustus himself by order of the emperor Claudius (r. 42–54 c.e.).

Aphrodite Anadyomene.

One of Apelles' most famous works was Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite Arising) which showed Aphrodite arising from the sea where she was born, and wringing her hair. According to one story, the model for the work was Alexander's mistress, with whom Apelles fell in love during a previous portrait sitting. When Alexander discovered Apelles' feelings, he gave his mistress to Apelles. If the anecdotes from ancient writers about Apelles' relationship with Alexander can be believed, Apelles was able to take liberties with Alexander that others could not. Both Pliny the Elder and Aelian noted instances when Apelles directly insulted Alexander's understanding of art and apparently suffered no consequences for his cheekiness. Apelles also did a self-portrait, the first self-portrait known from the ancient world.

Painter to the Kings.

When Alexander died in 323 b.c.e., Apelles painted portraits of his successors, including Antiogonus Monopthalmus (One-Eyed), who was blind in one eye. According to a description of this portrait, Apelles painted it in such a way as to show only the good eye, suggesting that he introduced a three-quarters view. Apelles then travelled to Alexandria in Egypt, where he worked in the court of King Ptolemy I. His career nearly came to an abrupt end there when he was implicated in a plot against Ptolemy, but he managed to clear his name and regain the favor of the king. Some scholars suggested that his famous allegorical painting, Calumny, described by the second-century c.e. satirist Lucian, was part of Apelles' argument for his innocence. The fifteenth-century Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) recreated this work from Lucian's description, and it now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.


Apelles died on the island of Cos, while copying his famous Aphodite Anadyomene. The painting was later taken to Rome. While the exact date of his death is unknown, it was probably early in the third century b.c.e.


Vincent J. Bruno, Form and Color in Greek Painting (New York: Norton, 1977).

E. H. Gombrich, The Heritage of Apelles: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976).

Andrew Sherwood, "Apelles," in Encyclopedia of Greece and the Classical Tradition. Ed. Graham Speake (London, England: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000): 99–101.


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Apelles (active after 350 B.C.) was one of the most prominent ancient Greek painters. None of his works has survived, but they are described by ancient writers.

Sources disagree as to whether Apelles was a native of Cos (Pliny), Colophon (Suidas), or Ephesus (Strabo and Lucian). In the early stages of his career he was a pupil of Pamphilus, the guiding spirit of the Sicyonian school of painting, and Apelles seems to have remained associated with that school. During his mature years he executed portraits for Philip of Macedon, according to Pliny in Naturalis historia (XXV, 93). After Philip's death Apelles became court painter to Alexander the Great. Alexander is said to have so admired Apelles' work that he ordered the execution of painted royal portraits to be made Apelles' exclusive prerogative.

After Alexander's death Apelles found employment in Alexandria at the court of Ptolemy I. He was implicated in a conspiracy to overthrow Ptolemy but managed to clear himself and regain the King's favor. The famous allegorical painting Calumny, described in detail by Lucian and recreated in the 15th-century painting by Sandro Botticelli, was perhaps created in an effort to convince Ptolemy of the painter's innocence.

The many anecdotes told about Apelles by ancient writers suggest a spirited, confident, at times even impudent personality, who was always ready to spar with his critics, including Alexander. On one occasion, when Alexander was discoursing on the art of painting, Apelles advised him to be silent because the boys who served as color grinders were laughing at his remarks (Pliny, Naturalis historia, XXV, 85). Apelles is also said to have told Alexander that his judgment in art was inferior to that of a horse (Aelian, Variae historiae, II, 3). Alexander seems to have taken the remarks in his stride.

As is the case with other Greek painters, no work by Apelles has survived, and what the ancient sources tell about his style is in some ways contradictory. On the one hand, he is described as a meticulous technician who never let a day pass without practicing his art, who outdid his contemporary Protogenes in subtlety of line, who was sensitive to criticism of the detail of his works, who painstakingly calculated the effect of his colors, and whose portraits were so precise that diviners claimed to be able to read their sitters' futures from their facial details.

On the other hand, Apelles seems to have written a treatise or memoir in which he conceded his inferiority to some of his contemporaries in composition and proportion (Pliny, Naturalis historia, XXV, 85) but maintained that they lacked his "charm" or "grace" (Greek, charis), an instinctive quality which seems to have involved, among other things, knowing when to stop working on a painting.

Many works by Apelles—portraits, mythological subjects, and allegorical scenes—are mentioned by ancient writers. The two most admired seem to have been Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite rising from the sea), originally in the Asklepieion in Cos and later placed by Augustus in the Temple of the Divine Caesar in Rome; and Alexander Keraunophoros (Alexander represented as Zeus holding a thunderbolt) in Ephesus. Some echoes of Apelles' works may be preserved in Pompeiian paintings, notably what seems to be a copy of Alexander Keraunophoros in the House of the Vettii.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Apelles. The principal sources on Apelles are translated in J.J. Pollitt, The Art of Greece, 1400-31 B.C.: Sources and Documents (1965). Background works on ancient Greek art include Ernst Pfuhl, Masterpieces of Greek Drawing and Painting (1924; trans. 1926; new ed. 1955); Gisela M.A. Richter, A Handbook of Greek Art (1959; 5th rev. ed. 1967); and Martin Robertson, Greek Painting (1959). □


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Apelles (4th century bc), Greek painter. He is now known only from written sources, as by Pliny's account of his Venus Anadyomene, but was highly acclaimed throughout the ancient world.