Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, 35.30

[Parrhasius Ephesi natus et ipse multa contulit [259]. Primus symmetrian picturae dedit, primus argutias voltus, elegantiam capilli, venustatem oris, confessione artificum in liniis extremis palmam adeptus. haec est picturae summa suptilitas. corpora enim pingere et media rerum est quidem magni operis, sed in quo multi gloriam tulerint; extrema corporum facere et desinentis picturae modum includere rarum in successu artis invenitur. ambire enim se ipsa debet extremitas et sic desinere, ut promittat alia et post se ostendatque etiam quae occultat. hanc ei gloriam concessere antigonus et xenocrates, qui de pictura scripsere, praedicantes quoque, non solum confitentes. [et alias multa graphidis uestigia extant in tabulis ac membranis eius, ex quibus proficere dicuntur artifices -290] minor tamen videtur sibi comparatus in mediis corporibus exprimendis.

[Parrhasius of Ephesus also contributed greatly to the progress of painting- 259] being the first to give symmetry to his figures, the first to give liveliness to the features, elegance to the hair, and gracefulness to the mouth: indeed, it is universally admitted by artists that he obtained the palm for drawing the outlines. This, in painting, is the very highest point of skill. To paint substantial bodies and the interior of objects is a great thing, no doubt, but many have excelled in it: however, to make the extreme outline of the figure, to give the finishing touches to the painting in rounding off the contour, this is a point of success in the art which is but rarely attained. For the extreme outline requires to be nicely rounded, and so to terminate as to prove the existence of something more behind it, and thereby disclose that which it also serves to hide. Such is the merit conceded to him by Antigonus and Xenocrates, who have written on the art of painting; and in this not only do they admit his excellence, but enlarge upon it in terms of the highest commendation. [290] Parrhasius, however, seems comparatively inferior to himself in giving the proper expression to the middle of the body. (??? ; lightly modified by Spyridon Loumakis)

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[259] Le premier il a observé en peinture les proportions, le premier il a mis de la finesse dans les traits du visage, de l'élégance dans la coiffure, de la grâce dans la bouche, et, de l'aveu des artistes, il a remporté la palme pour les contours. Telle est, en peinture, l'habileté suprême. Savoir peindre les corps et le milieu des objets est, sans doute, un grand mérite, mais beaucoup de peintres ont par là acquis la gloire; dessiner les limites du corps, enfermer dans un contour exact une peinture, voilà qui se trouve rarement exécuté avec succès. Car l'extrémité doit tourner et s'achever de façon à donner l'impression qu'il y a autre chose derrière elle et à voir même ce qu'elle cache. Telle est la supériorité que lui ont accordée Antigonos et Xénokratès et ils ne l'ont pas simplement avouée, mais proclamée. [290] Pourtant comparé à lui-même, il paraît moins heureux à rendre le milieu des corps. (Reinach, 1921).

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Commentary

  1. This passage is inseparable from text 259 (Parrhasios' origins. See also texts 257 and 258) and 290 concerning the drawings made by Parrhasius. In this passage, Pliny is talking about Parrhasius’ artistic skill, especially his achievement in mastering outline drawing. ([symmetria]; argutiae; elegentia; venustas)
  2. "Ambire enim se ipsa debet extremitas et sic desinere, ut promittat alia et post se ostendatque etiam quae occultat" translates as "for the extreme outline requires to be nicely rounded, and so to terminate as to prove the existence of something more behind it, and thereby disclose that which it also serves to hide." The translation of this passage is still debated today. However, following Pliny’s writing, Parrhasius was the first to study the function of the outline drawing (liniis extremis) in order to represent "the plasticity of the body" and "the volume of the bodies in space." Two interpretations of this passage were proposed. First, the outline drawing could be understood in a dynamic and rhythmic sense as the "functional outline," like in Pollaiuolo's paintings (Jex-Blake 1896, pp. 112-113; Ferri 1946, pp. 154-155; Bianchi-Bandinelli 1950, pp. 53-61, 171-172 ; Rumpf 1951, pp. 2-12; Bruno 1977, pp. 35-39; Croisille 1985, p. 187 (with complete bibliography); Rouveret 2006, pp. 187-189). The other interpretation is that Pliny was talking about chiaroscuro (or shading), which gives the painting "autonomy" from drawing: this is Reinach's interpretation (1921, p. 240) and Pfuhl 1923, pp. 691 ff, 753 ff (see Croisille 1985, p. 187).
  3. If the first interpretation is correct, it makes perfect sense to pair Parrhasius with Zeuxis, his contemporary and rival. In other words, it would mean that each one is a master of the two most important skills in painting: form (due to the outline drawing) and color (due to the mastering of shading) (Bruno 1977, pp. 31-40).
  4. Concerning the technique of outline drawing, a fine example can be found on the white ground lekythoi attributed to the "Reed Painter" by J.D. Beazley. An example of a lekythos from The Walter Art Gallery in Baltimore (48.2523) attributed to the Reed Painter and dated ca. 420-410 AD can be seen here. See also texts 289 and 293.
  5. This achievement in the outline drawing was praised by ancient art historians such as Xenocrates (early 3d century BCE) and Antigonus (later 3d century BCE.). According to modern scholars, Xenocrates was one of the main sources used by Pliny (Pollitt 1974, pp. 73-81; 1990, pp. 1-9; Croisille 1985, pp. 13-27, 186-187). In fact, Pliny’s remarks echo the Xenocratic evolutionary system on the development of ancient painting: a progression from the perceived imperfection of the archaic period ("primitive") to the perfection of the Hellenistic time. In this system, significant contributions and inventions (as shading or perspective) are attributed to only a few artists, such as Apollodorus, Zeuxis, Parrhasius, and Apelles in the case of painting (Pollitt 1990, pp. 3-4 and 1974, pp. 73-81).
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Bibliography

Bianchi-Bandinelli, R. 1950, Storicità dell'arte classica, Florence;

Bruno,V. 1977, Form and Colour in Greek Painting, New-York;

Ferri, S. 1946, Plinio il vecchio. Storia delle arti antiche, Rome;

Jex-Blake, K. and Sellers, E., 1968 (c. 1896), The Elder Pliny's Chapters on the History of Art, Chicago;

Le Bonniec, H. 1946, Bibliographie de l'Histoire Naturelle de Pline l'ancien, Paris;

Pline l'ancien, Histoire Naturelle, livre XXXV : la peinture. 2002 (c.1985), Trad. et commentaires J.-M. Croisille, Paris, Belles Lettres;

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, vol. IX, books, 33-35. 1952, translated by H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge;

Pollitt, J.J. 1974, The Ancient View of Greek Art. Criticism, History and Terminology, New Haven-London;

Pollitt, J.J. 1990. The Art of Ancient Greece. Source and Documents, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press;

Rouveret, A. 2003, "Parrhasios ou le peintre assassin", Ars et Ratio. Sciences, art et métiers dans la philosophie hellénistique et romaine. Actes du Colloque international organisé à Créteil, Fontenay et Paris du 16 au 18 octobre 1997, Bruxelles, pp. 184-193;

Rumpf, A. 1951, "Parrhasios", American Journal of Archaeology, 55 (1), pp. 1-12.

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