From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Life and work
Zeuxis was born in Heraclea, probably Heraclea Lucania in southern Italy, around 464 BC and was presumably the pupil of Apollodorus. Zeuxis often thought himself misunderstood by his public and Aristotle did not like him at all. He is said to have laughed himself to death after painting a funny old woman (supposedly the woman had ordered a painting of Aphrodite and demanded that she be used as his model). He was known to have painted an assembly of gods, Eros crowned with roses, Alcmene, Menelaus, an athlete, Pan, Marsyas chained and an old woman. Zeuxis' most notable works included Helen, Zeus Enthroned, and The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents. The Helen is the subject of a myth that arose in the 4th century BC that Zeuxis could find no single model beautiful enough on which to base his image of the most beautiful woman in the world, and so selected the best features from five models to create a composite image of ideal beauty. Archelaus I of Macedon employed Zeuxis to decorate the palace of his new capital Pella and the king himself was presented with a picture of Pan by Zeuxis.
Most of his works were taken to Rome and to Byzantium but disappeared during the time of Pausanias. None have survived to this day.
Contest with Parrhasius
Zeuxis and his contemporary Parrhasius (of Ephesus and later Athens) are reported in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder to have staged a contest to determine which of the two was the greater artist. When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of grapes, they appeared so luscious and inviting that birds flew down from the sky to peck at them. Zeuxis then asked Parrhasius to pull aside the curtain from his painting, only for Parrhasius to reveal the curtain itself was a painting, and Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat. Zeuxis is rumoured to have said: 'I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.'
In a 1964 seminar, the psychoanalyst and theorist Jacques Lacan observed that the myth of the two painters reveals an interesting aspect of human cognition. While animals are attracted to superficial appearances, humans are enticed by the idea of that which is hidden.