"The Fortunes of Apelles"

A bit of art history from John Gage’s “Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction”. My favorite (free) website on painting and color science cites Gage’s book this way:

“This is the perhaps the single most important work on color available from any publisher.”

I managed to extract “The Fortunes of Apelles” chapter from googlebooks into a pdf: https://tinyurl.com/y3mxmo59

Gage describes his interpretation with lots of citations to evidence. His main message is how hard it is to figure out how people were thinking about color in the past and how rarely we hear directly from painters. He describes the evolution of popular understanding in terms of Apelles, the great Greek painter.

Some neat facts you’ll find if you bother reading through the pdf:

Ancient Greek painters (who we have virtually no surviving works of) painted with encaustic (pigment in hot beeswax).

There seemed to be strong dogma against premixing pigments in the wax and there is no evidence that they used palettes. They must have been mixing on the canvas.

Pliny tells us in Natural History that Apelles was amongst the best Greek painters and used four colors (white red, black and…yellow…we think). Blue isn’t mentioned, black and blue overlap in Greek, maybe black was “blue enough” even though pigments like Egyptian blue were certainly around. .

Pliny’s story is probably inaccurate and certainly an appeal to the Roman austeritas ideal.

Durer and Titian were both interested in Apelles in mid 1500s. Durer’s only surviving discussion on color talks about chromatic simplicity. Writers wrote about Titian’s flesh painting that used few pigments but not entirely clear he always did.

Red, yellow and blue show up as the “primaries” in 1600, apparently different from Pliny’s colors. and after various other sets of colors considered the ‘basic’ colors until the Renaissance.

Final para summarizes things nicely:
Thus from Anitquity until the nineteenth century Apelles stood, as a colourist, for an ideal aesthetic simplicity, understood by each period which looked to him in terms of the prevailing notion of basic of primary colours. His story gives us the clearest indication of how theory often provided an uncomfortable fit with practice and how each generation could only look at the colour of the past with the colour in its own eyes.


Thank you for the PDF link Maneesh! :smiley:

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