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A Little Happier: In Ancient Greece, Two Painters Held a Contest. Who Won?


In my study of the five senses, I often come across delightful stories from the past related to seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

For instance, according to a famous story recounted in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, two acclaimed painters of ancient Greece, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, staged a contest. They wanted to determine which of the two ranked as the greater artist.

Zeuxis Choosing his Models for the Image of Helen from among the Girls of Croton, François-André Vincent, c. 1791, Sotheby’s

When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of grapes, they appeared so real that birds flew down to peck at them.

What mastery!

However, when it was Parrhasius’s turn, his painting was hidden behind a curtain. He asked Zeuxis to draw aside the curtain, but when Zeuxis tried to do so, he discovered that the curtain itself had been painted. Parrhasius won. Zeuxis admitted, "I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis."

I love this ancient story of trickery and trickery again, from the legends of sight.

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