PARRHASIUS, son and pupil of Erenor, was a native of Ephesus, but became a citizen of Athens. He raised the art of painting to perfection in all that is exalted and essential. He compared his three great predecessors with one another, rejected that which was exceptionable, and adopted that which was admirable in each. The classic invention of Polygnotus, the magic tone of Apollodorus, and the exquisite design of Zeuxis, were all united in the works of Parrhasius; what they had produced in practice he reduced to theory. He so circumscribed and defined, says Quintilian [last. Or., xii. 10), all the powers and objects of art, that he was termed the Legislator; and all contemporary and subsequent artists adopted his standard of divine and heroic proportions.
Parrhasius himself was aware of his ability: he assumed the epithet of the Elegant ('AfipoSiairoc), and styled himself Prince of Painters; be wrote an epigram upon himself (Athenaeus, xii., p. J-J3. Casaub.), in which he proclaimed his birth-place, celebrated his father, and pretended that in himself the art of painting had attained perfection. He also declared himself to be descended from Apollo, and carried his arrogance so far as to dedicate his own portrait in a templo as Mercury, and thus receive the adoration of the multitude (Themist., xiv.) lie wore a purple robe and a golden garland; he carried a staff wound round with tendrils of gold, and his sandals were bound with golden straps. (.Elian, J'ar. Hist., ix. 11.) It appears then that Pliny justly terms him the most insolent and most arrogant of artists. (Hist. Nut., xxxv. 10, 36.)
The blanch of art in which Parrhasius eminently excelled was a beautiful outline as well in form as execution, particularly in the extremities, for, says Pliny, when compared with himself, the intermediate parts were inferior.
One of the most celebrated works of Parrhasius was his allegorical figure of the Athenian people, or Demos. Pliny says that it represented, and expressed equally, all the good aad bad qualities of the Athenians at the same time; one might trace the changeable, the irritable, the kind, the unjust, the forgiving, the vain-glorious, the proud, the humble, the fierce, and the timid. How all these contrasting and counteracting qualities could have been represented at the same time, it is difficult to conceive; if we are to suppose il to have been a single figure, it is very certain that it could not have been such as Pliny has described it (xxxv 10-36), for, except by symbols, it is totally incompatible with the means of art. Parrhasius painted a Theseus, which, after the general spoliation of Greece, was placed in the Capitol at Rome. It was probably for this picture that he was made a citizen of Athens. When Euphranor remarked that the Theseus of Parrhasius had fed upon roses, and his own upon beef, he seems to have alluded particularly to the stylo of design, and not, as one might suppose, to the colour; for, as Winckelmann has observed, the word used by Plutarch (yXa^imuf, 'elcgintly') relates expressly to form. (De Glor. Ath., 2.) According to the taste of Euphranor, the figure of Parrhasius was too elegant, too delicate, too effeminate for heroic be.iuty.
Pliny enumerates many other works by Parrhasius; a naval commander in his armour; a Meleager, Hercules,and Perseus, upon the same tablet; Ulysses feigning insanity; Ca«tor and Pollux; Bacchus and Virtue; a Cretan nurse with an infant in her arms; a priest officiating, with an attendant youth bearing incense; two youthful boys, in which were admirably depicted the innocent simplicity of the age, and its happy security from all care; aPhiliscus; ii Tulephus; an Achilles; an Agamemnon; an .'Eneas; and two famous pictures of Hoplites, or heavy-armed warriors, one in action, the other in repose, admirably painted.
Parrhasius amused himself also with painting small libidinous pieces. The Archigallus mentioned by Pliny was most probably of this description, both from the particular favour of Tiberius with which it was honoured, and the peculiar nature of the rites of Cybele, whoso chief priest was the Archigallus. To this class we may add the picture of Muleagerand Atalanla, mentioned by Suetonius (Tifi., c. 44). This picture was bequeathed to Tiberius on the conditions that if he should be offended with the subject, he should receive in its stead 1,000,000 sesierees ('decies H-S,' about 8Soo/.). The emperor not only preferred the picture to the monev, but had it fixed up in his own chamber, where the Archigallus was also preserved, and which was valued at il.S.LX. or 60,000 sesterces (abnut .'i0iX). Thc-o productions entitle Parrhasius to the epithet of Pornograph, and prove that this style of painting was in fashion long before the decline of Grecian art.
Plutarch instances Parrhasius's picture of Ulysses feigning insanity as an improper subject for the pencil, yet reconciled to our taste through the spirit of the conception and llie truth of the execution. (De Aud. Poet.)
Parrhasius painted a Hercules, which he affirmed was a facsimile of the god as he had frequently appeared to him in his dreams. (Athenmus, xii. 544. > He painted also a Philoctetes. (Anthol. Gr., iv. 8, 26.) Piiny mentions a contest between Parrhasius and Timanthes of Cvthnos, in which the former was beaten: the subject of tln> picture was the contest of Ulysses andAjax. The proud painter, indignant at the decision of the judges, is said to have remarked, that the unfortunate son of Telaruon was for a second time, in the same cause, defeated by an unworthy rival. (Athen., xii. 54;).)
Pliny records also a trial of skill between Parrhasius and Zeuxis. in which the latter allowed his grapes to have been surpassed by the drapery of the former: this contest, says Fuseli, 'if not a frolic, was an effort of puerile dexterity.'
The story told by Seneca of Parrhasius having crucified an old Olynthian captive when about to paint a Prometheus chained, that he might seize from nature the true expression of bodily agony, cannot relate to this. Parrhasius, and is probably a fiction: it is nowhere to be found but in the 'Controversies ' (v. 10) of the preceptor of Nero. Olynthus was taken by Philip in the second year of the 108th Olympiad, or B.C. 347, which is nearly half a century later than the latest accounts we have of Parrhasius. Socrates died in the J5th Olympiad, and Parrhasius must therefore have been already celebrated before that time, from his dialogue with that philosopher upon the principles of art as preserved by Xenophon. (Mem., iii. 10.) He is even mentioned by Pausanias (x. 28) in the 84th Olympiad, when he is said to have painted a battle of the Lapitbtc and Centaurs on the shield of the Minerva of Phidias at Athens: supposing such to be the case (for although imrpobablc, it is still not impossible), Parrhasius, if living, must have been at least 120 years of age when Philip took Olynthus. A similar story is told of Giotto, with probably as much truth; and some have also said the same of Michael Angelo Buonarotti.
Note - this article incorporates content from The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1840)