The two greatest painters of classical times—Zeuxis and Parhassius—met in a duel. Who was better?
Zeuxis with a smile of superiority showed his painting first—a bunch of grapes. They were astoundingly realistic. Some birds flew down to steal them, crashing up against Zeuxis’ wooden panel. A cheer rose up from the crowd of spectators. Top that!
Parhassius didn’t seem worried. “Draw back the veil on my painting,” he told Zeuxis, “and give the judges a look at what I came up with.”
Zeuxis didn’t like to be ordered like a servant but he walked up to Parhassius’ painting and put out his hand to draw back the veil. Zats! —there was no veil, only Parhassius’ painting of one; and it had fooled even Zeuxis. “You got me,” he told Parhassius. “You win.”
And he did. The prize went to Parhassius, says the historian Plutarch, “because though Zeuxis’s painting had fooled the birds, Parhassius’s had fooled an artist”.
This is a wonderful story: the great contest between the best in the world. Parhassius’ clever deception is a nice touch: the prize goes to astuteness as well as to technical mastery.
Yet—wait a minute. What about the basic question of superior painting? Is either old Zeuxis or Parhassius a great painter because he can paint a realistic grape or a veil? Is that what makes a great painter?
Perhaps Plutarch, who wrote the story, couldn’t see any further than what Plato called the “deception” of painting. That the grapes on the board were a fake, not the real thing: they “misled” people. Plato never even talked about the problems of aesthetics that have since bothered painters.