A Patron’s Request Made an Ancient Greek Artist Laugh Himself to Death
Zeuxis (flourished 5th century BC) was an ancient Greek artist from Heraclea in Magna Graecia, near today’s Toronto, Italy. Back in his day, he was considered by his fellow Greek contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived, and he was praised for popularizing a trend toward illusionism and pushing it to new levels.
He was innovative and broke with tradition, and departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color, relying instead upon a clever manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works. He often preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure.
None of his works survive today, but historical records describe his paintings as exceptionally realistic. As recounted by Roman writer Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, Zeuxis entered into a competition with a rival painter named Parhassius, to see who could create the most realistic painting. When Zeuxis unveiled his entry, the grapes that he painted were so life-like, so the story goes, that birds flew down to peck at them.
However, even a master of realism like Zeuxis was trumped that day by Parhassius. Zeuxis’ rival invited him to examine the competing painting, but when he tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, he discovered, to his chagrin, that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that his rival had won, stating: “I have deceived the birds, but Parhassius has deceived Zeuxis“. Centuries later, that rivalry over realism between Zeuxis and Parhassius was viewed by Renaissance painters as a challenge and a spur in their quest to surpass the ancients.
Zeuxis’ end came because of a commission from a wealthy patroness, an elderly widow, who hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting fashioned in her own likeness, and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, who was supposed to be the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman wanting to pose as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, and kept on laughing until he dropped over, dead.