14. Great Greek Artist Dies of Laughter
In his day, the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis (flourished 5th century BC) of Heraclea in Magna Graecia, was deemed by his fellow Greek contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived. His paintings were in high demand, and he was widely praised for popularizing a trend toward illusionism and raising it to new heights.
An innovative talent who broke with tradition, Zeuxis departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color, and relied instead upon a creative manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works. He preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and he usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure.
Historical records describe his paintings as extremely lifelike. In his Natural History, Roman writer Pliny the Elder tells of a competition between Zeuxis and 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, that birds flew down to peck at them.
Nonetheless, Zeuxis was trumped that day when his rival invited him to examine the competing painting. When Zeuxis tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, he discovered that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that he had lost, 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 in their quest to surpass the ancients.
Zeuxis’ death came about when a wealthy patroness, an elderly widow, hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting made in her own likeness, and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman posing as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, that did not cease until he keeled over, dead.