“Why, Apelles?”

where apelles

Apelles was Alexander the Great’s court painter. We’ll have to take the ancients’ word for his talent as no works of his have survived to our time. Alexander wanted a nude portrait of his girlfriend/hetarai Campaspe (one of his many girlfriends, in some tellings,) naturally, this task fell to Apelles.

Of course Apelles will fall in love with this exceptional woman. Alexander, being king of the world, would not bother with less than an exceptional woman. The tale goes on to say that Alexander, known for his insight and compassion, senses that Apelles has become smitten and out of the goodness of his heart he “gives” her to him.

This smacks of being a photo-op before there were photos. The press release 400 years after the “fact” written by Pliny the Elder, circa AD 77–79 explains: “Seeing the beauty of the nude portrait, Alexander saw that the artist appreciated Campaspe (and loved her) more than he. And so Alexander kept the portrait, but presented Campaspe to Apelles.”

Fast forward to the “Enlightenment;” a time when a lot of paintings of the event show it as such. They show the hand off of Campaspe by Alexander to Apelles. The J.L. David take on the work (ca. 1814) differs from the rest of the visual chroniclers. At first his interpretation seems uncomfortable stiff compared to the dramatic gestures of the other painters of the subject. In the David, it looks like the painting is to be of Alexander and Campaspe in bed! Campaspe sits stark naked there, not the usually modeling stool. And Alexander is standing behind Apelles wearing nothing but a sheet and a helmet, (kinky, eh?) he seems to just gotten up and wandered over to have a look to see what Apelles has done so far. Which is nothing; Apelles is not painting but is gloomily staring at Campaspe.

Alexander taps Apelles’ shoulder, urging him back to work. “Why so slow, Apelles?” he asks. Perhaps Apelles of old felt as long as he had the painting he had Campaspe; with his painting unfinished, he could look at her as much as he wished to, touching it as if it were her. (more kinkiness?) David’s Alexander seems aware of this and urges him on. Alexander wants Campaspe back. The legend has him getting the painting, but losing Campaspe in the process. And in another wandering from the art pack David has Campaspe be neither a distant model/muse nor an object passed passively from one owner to another. She’s a thinking, feeling individual embarrassed by this voyeuristic scene.

Fast forward again to now. Embarrassment is not Campaspe’s only option. She is still, a la David, neither muse nor means. She’s still being painted and is still attached to an Alexander, but he is not in a position to give her away. She now can choose or reject him based on how much of the world he’s king of. And what about today’s Apelles? Neither a Campaspe nor an Alexander find him worth their trouble.