The contest of Zeuxis and Parrhasius  

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Zeuxis and his contemporary Parrhasius were two ancient Greek painters reported in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder to have staged a contest to determine which of the two was the greater artist.

Pliny described Parrhasius's contest with Zeuxis: Zeuxis painted some grapes so perfectly luscious and inviting that a flock of birds few down to eat them but, instead, only pecked at their picture. Zeuxis had fooled the birds with his picture.

Parrhasius and Zeuxis walked to Parrhasius's studio where upon Parrhasius asked Zeuxis to draw aside the curtain and witness his own masterpiece. When Zeuxis attempted to do so, he realized that the curtain was not a curtain, but a painting of a curtain. Zeuxis conceded defeat, for while Zeuxis had deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived Zeuxis, saying

'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.

Excerpts from Pliny

The contemporaries and rivals of Zeuxis were Timanthes, Androcydes, Eupompus, and Parrhasius. This last, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake, with a great degree of ingenuous candour he admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist. --tr. John Bostock
There is a story, too, that at a later period, Zeuxis having painted a child carrying grapes, the birds came to peck at them ; upon which, with a similar degree of candour, he expressed himself vexed with his work, and exclaimed — "I have surely painted the grapes better than the child, for if I had fully succeeded in the last, the birds would have been in fear of it." --tr. John Bostock

See also

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