Ancient & Classical Art

Fool Me Once: A Fun Fact

Yesterday, I mentioned trompe l’oeil painting and how it can deceive you. Here’s a fun little story to go along with it.

Grapes by William Jabez Muckley
William Jabez Muckley, Grapes, 1869. Museums Sheffield, Sheffield, UK. Photo via the-athenaeum.org (Public Domain).

According to ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder, there was once a competition between two ancient Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios. They were trying to out-do each other in creating the most realistic painting. As the story goes, Zeuxis painted a picture of grapes, and they looked so real that a bird flew down and tried to eat them. He was apparently quite pleased with himself. Then, Parrhasios showed Zeuxis his own painting, which had a curtain in front of it. Zeuxis asked Parrhasios to remove the curtain so he could see the work. As you can probably guess, the curtain was painted, not real. Zeuxis conceded defeat when he discovered his mistake. He figured that fooling a human was a much bigger accomplishment than fooling a bird. Unfortunately, no works by either painter survive, so we have no way of knowing if they were really capable of such illusionism. (The grapes shown above were painted more than a thousand years later.)

The source for this story is chapter 36 of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History written in 77 AD. Click here to read a translation of this specific section, courtesy of someone at the Pratt Institute.

Side note: While we presently call this kind of illusionistic painting “trompe l’oeil”, Zeuxis, Parrhasios, and Pliny would have called it “mimesis”. Mimesis is a Greek word, while “trompe l’oeil” comes from French, which didn’t yet exist in ancient times. You can find the present meanings of both these terms in my fun art words post.

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