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"A still life painting was originally designated in Greek by the term "rhopography" (i.e. depiction of insignificant objects, of odds and ends); then, forcing the pejorative nuance a little, it was mockingly baptized '"rhyparography" (i.e. painting of the sordid) […] Now too the term "megalography" (i.e. large-scale painting) was coined in contradistinction to rhopography. But it was not so much a matter of size as of the nature of the subject, the latter category corresponding to our minor genre as contrasted with the grand manner."--Still Life Painting: From Antiquity to the Twentieth Century (1952:27), Charles Sterling

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Rhyparography (from rhypos and graphein) is a Greek term first found in the writing of Pliny the Elder referring to Ancient Greek painter Peiraikos.

It has come to denote the painting, or literary description, of mean or sordid things; especially still-life or genre painting.



François Rabelais used the term in the fifth book of Gargantua and Pantagruel.

"Beseeching our grandees of Witland that, as when formerly Apollo had distributed all the treasures of his poetical exchequer to his favourites, little hunchbacked Aesop got for himself the office of apologue-monger; in the same manner, since I do not aspire higher, they would not deny me that of puny rhyparographer, or riffraff follower of the sect of Pyreicus." (Urquhart and Motteux translation)

William Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1842) distinguishes between rhyparography, pornography and all the lower classes of art:

"The ancients gave a name to this kind of painting, respecting the true form of which there is a difference of opinion. Pliny says that Pyreicus was called, on account of the subjects of his pictures, Rhyparographos (the reading of all the MSS.), instead of which Salmasius proposed to read Rhopographos, as better suited to the sense, and Welcker adopts the correction (ad Philostr. 396), while Sillig and others are satisfied with the former reading. The difference is hardly important enough to be discussed here. (See Sillig, Cat. Artif s. v.; Döderlein, Lat. Synon. vol. ii. p. 38; and the Greek Lexicons, s. vv.[1]"

And elsewhere:

"The consequence [of the decline of painting in Greece after the death of Alexander the Great] was, that the artists of those times were under the necessity of trying other fields of art; of attracting attention by novelty and variety: thus rhyparography (ῥυπαργραφία), pornography, and all the lower classes of art, attained the ascendancy, and became the characteristic styles of the period…."
"In the lower descriptions of painting which prevailed in this period, Pyreicus was pre-eminent; he was termed Rhyparographos (ῥυπαργράφος), on account of the mean quality of his subjects. He belonged to the class of genre-painters, or “peintres de genre bas,” as the French term them. The Greek ῥυπαργραφία, therefore, is apparently equivalent to our expression, the Dutch style.
Pornography, or obscene painting, which in the time of the Romans was practised with the grossest license, prevailed especially at no particular period in Greece, but was apparently tolerated to a considerable extent at all times. Parrasius, Aristides, Pausanias, Nicophanes, Chaerephanes, Arellius, and a few other πορνογράϕοι are mentioned as having made themselves notorious for this species of license."[2] with added corrections, see also [3]

George Saintsbury in his History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1896) uses it of descriptive writing: "The Lousiad (a perfect triumph of cleverness expended on what the Greeks called rhyparography)."

Scholar Norman Bryson "adopts the distinction between 'rhyparography' and ' rhopography' made by Sterling. According to Sterling, 'rhopography' is a term used in the ancient world to describe portrayals of small, unimportant things ('trifles'). 'Rhyparography' is a pejorative term and refers to low, despicable ('sordid') matters."[4]

German text

Der Begriff Rhyparographie (von griech. ryparos oder rypos „schmutzig“, also „Schmutzmalerei“) bezeichnet in der Malerei der Antike das niedere Genre, die hauptsächliche Darstellung alltäglicher, gewöhnlicher oder verächtlicher Gegenstände.

Nach Plinius erhielt der Maler Pyreïkos, der mit Vorliebe Barbierstuben, Schusterwerkstätten, Esel, Eßwaren und dergleichen darstellte, deshalb den Spitznamen Rhyparographos („Schmutzmaler“). Nach heutigen Begriffen würde man von Genremalerei oder Stillleben sprechen. Aus dem Ausdruck hat man auf eine Geringschätzung entsprechender Darstellungen in der Antike geschlossen. Dem widerspricht aber die große Zahl von Stillleben und Genrebildern, die man in Pompeji und Herkulaneum gefunden hat.

Synonym mit Rhyparographie wird auch der Begriff Ropographie gebraucht (von griech. ropos „Kleinigkeit“ oder „Mischmasch“, also „Kleinkrammalerei“).

Der gegensätzliche Begriff ist Megalographie.


See also

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