Recently the Prado Museum has celebrated a painting exhibition titled “Juan Fernandez Labrador. Still Lifes “. Juan Fernandez is a painter of the Spanish Golden Age, little known, who painted mostly “still lifes”. His representative works are paintings of “bunches of grapes”.
This specialization in painting of grapes has allowed that fans of painting remember the famous story of the “artistic” confrontation between two of the most famous painters of the ancient world, the Greeks Zeuxis and Parrhasius.
It is best to read directly Pliny the Elder, who is who tells us in Natural History, 35, 29 (or 35.36 in other editions):
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.
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."
Aequales eius et aemuli fuere Timanthes, Androcydes, Eupompus, Parrhasius. Descendisse hic in certamen cum Zeuxide traditur et, cum ille detulisset uvas pictas tanto successu, ut in scaenam aves advolarent, ipse detulisse linteum pictum ita veritate repraesentata, ut Zeuxis alitum iudicio tumens flagitaret tandem remoto linteo ostendi picturam atque intellecto errore concederet palmam ingenuo pudore, quoniam ipse volucres fefellisset, Parrhasius autem se artificem.
Fertur et postea Zeuxis pinxisse puerum uvas ferentem, ad quas cum advolassent aves, eadem ingenuitate processit iratus operi et dixit: “uvas melius pinxi quam puerum, nam si et hoc consummassem, aves timere debuerant.”
The story at first seems less credible and the second part supports the doubts, but that does not mean we can not draw any lessons from it.
At First we reported the artistic tastes of the Greeks in the transition between V and IV century BC.
The essence of classical art is to imitate, emulate nature hiding the art itself; ars est celare artem , the art is to hide the art, till the point that it does not seem art but truth; as Ovid says in his Metamorphoses X, 252 about perfection of Pygmalion's sculpture: ars adeo latet arte sua, “so much the art hides itself by art's own work”
The aim is certainly the most accurate illusion of realism and more perfect imitation of nature, to the point of deceiving the human eye, producing the effect of trompe l'oeil (deceive the eye). It's what you try to paint architectural elements, windows, doors, curtains, stays … Maybe it is due to some influence of the sets of some plays theatre.
Interestingly, since then until now, in that kind of painting of still lifes, the reason of the painting is food or food-related items.
This story also reports us on the recognition of the status of the painter and painting, reflected on the importance of the events.
There is still also a curious food for thought that the paintings of the great ancient artists Zeuxis, Parraxius, Polygnotus were appreciated and valued but none of them survives physically; We know the story of rivalry between Zeuxis and Parrhasius and their quality as artist by a text written by Pliny the Elder. What would our knowledge of history without the word? This is the reason because in these articles I use few images, relying mostly on the evocative power of the word, in this case written.
But maybe it is justified to offer once one of the works of “Juan Fernández el Labrador” existing in Prado Museum and visually check why it was called the Modern Zeuxis.
Still life with four bunches of grapes.
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.