The Greatest Painting Contest

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.

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9 Responses to The Greatest Painting Contest

  1. The ancients certainly recognized the importance of ‘phantasia’ (imagination) in art as well as precision and imitation: “For imitation will represent that which can be seen with the eyes, but phantasia will represent that which cannot….”(Philostratus VA 6.19).

    Or, as Plotinus later put it, “When Phidias made the Zeus [at Olympia], he did not use any model that could be perceived by the senses, but rather he formed a conception of what Zeus would be like if he chose to reveal himself to our eyes.”

    And, yes, we’ve been working on that aesthetic ever since.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Those are fine quotes, Judith. Thanks. I suspect even Plutarch knew better but liked the good story.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    A lot of people go for photographic quality paintings these days. But photorealism involves the brain and the hands so much, that the heart takes a backseat in my opinion. Is art without heart and soul, based solely on deception of the eyes really art?

  4. I’m not so sure about Plutarch. He has a strong tendency to literalness, not to say common-sense bluntness. What he admired most (“the most wonderful thing”) about the Periclean building program, which includes the Parthenon, for heavens sake — besides its grandness (unsure if he means ‘bigness’ or grandeur)and ‘inimitable grace’ — was the speed with which the buildings were completed.

    I know some art critics like that today

    I do enjoy visiting your site and am going to put a link on my blogroll.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Maybe you’re right about Plutarch, Judith. But heck, if he did mean “grandeur” and he was able to perceive the inimitable grace, that’s not too bad. Maybe his “the most wonderful thing” was a slip.
    I’m happy you enjoy the blog and I’m honored to be on your blogroll.

    Perhaps you’d like to have a look at my other blog:
    http://100falcons.wordpress.com/

  6. Frank Lin says:

    This post ran already…Repost?

  7. 100swallows says:

    Yes, Frank. Sorry for serving it twice to you. I’ve decided to repost a few of the early ones now in summer for a supposed different bunch of readers. I have nearly two hundred and fifty posts after ten months–too many for anyone to read, don’t you think? Plus, I need a break.

  8. rich says:

    Immensely liked the Great Contest story (as well as the comments)- hadn’t read it before!
    Wish you a nice holiday, which you really deserve…

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