From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Apelles (Ἀπελλῆς) of Kos (flourished 4th century BC) was a renowned painter of ancient Greece, known for such works as Venus Anadyomene. Pliny the Elder, to whom we owe much of our knowledge of this artist (Naturalis Historia 35.36.79-97 and passim) rated him superior to preceding and subsequent artists. He dated Apelles to the 112th Olympiad (332-329 BC), possibly because he had produced a portrait of Alexander the Great.
Few things are more hopeless than the attempt to realize the style of a painter whose works have vanished. But a great wealth of stories, true or invented, clung to Apelles in antiquity; and modern archaeologists have naturally tried to discover what they indicate.
We are told, for example, that he attached great value to the drawing of outlines, practising every day. The tale is well known of his visit to Protogenes, and the rivalry of the two masters as to which could draw the finest and steadiest line. The power of drawing such lines is conspicuous in the decoration of red-figured vases of Athens. Apelles is said to have treated his rival with generosity, for he increased the value of his pictures by spreading a report that he meant to buy them and sell them as his own.
Apelles allowed the superiority of some of his contemporaries in particular matters: according to Pliny he admired the dispositio of Melanthius, i.e. the way in which he spaced his figures, and the mensurae of Asclepiodorus, who must have been a great master of symmetry and proportion. It was especially in that undefinable quality "grace" that Apelles excelled. He probably used but a small variety of colours, and avoided elaborate perspective: simplicity of design, beauty of line and charm of expression were his chief merits. When the naturalism of some of his works is praised--for example, the hand of his Alexander is said to have stood out from the picture--we must remember that this is the merit always ascribed by ignorant critics to works which they admire. In fact the age of Alexander was one of notable idealism, and probably Apelles succeeded in a marked degree in imparting to his figures a beauty beyond nature.
Pliny connects a number of sayings to Apelles, which may come from Apelles' lost treatise on the art of painting. One comes from Apelles' judgement on Protogenes, that Protogenes knew when his painting was finished: quod manum de tabula scirat -- "[He knew] when to take the hand from the picture." Another refers to his practice of exhibiting his works in the front of his shop, then hiding near by to hear the comments of passers-by. When a cobbler commented on his mistakes in painting a shoe, Apelles made the corrections that very night; the next morning the cobbler noticed the changes, and proud of his effect on the artist's work began to criticize how Apelles portrayed the leg -- whereupon Apelles emerged from his hiding-place to state: Ne sutor ultra crepidam -- "Let the shoemaker venture no further." The last saying Pliny attributes to Apelles refers to the painter's diligence at practising his art every day: Nulla dies sine linea -- "Not a day without a line drawn."
Pliny states that Apelles made a number of useful innovations to the art of painting, but his recipe for a black varnish, called by Pliny atramentum -- which served both to preserve his paintings and to soften their colour, and created an effect that Pliny praises to no end -- Apelles kept secret and was lost with his death.
There can be little doubt that Apelles was one of the most bold and progressive, of artists. Such was his fame that several Italian Renaissance painters repeated his subjects, in a vain hope of giving some notion of the composition of them. Raphael may have portrayed himself as Apelles in The School of Athens and Sandro Botticelli based two paintings -- The birth of Venus and Calumny of Apelles -- on his works.