Zeuxis, Parrhasius and the London tube dog

The painting contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius is well known. Pliny the Elder recounts how the 5th-century BC painters competed for, one might say, photographic realism:

‘[Parrhasius], it is recorded, entered into a competition with Zeuxis, who produced a picture of grapes so successfully represented that birds flew up to the stage-buildings; whereupon Parrhasius himself produced such a realistic picture of a curtain that Zeuxis, proud of the verdict of the birds, requested that the curtain should now be drawn and the picture displayed; and when he realized his mistake, with a modesty that did him honour he yielded up the prize, saying that whereas he had deceived birds Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.’

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. (Naturalis Historia, 35.66)


Johann Georg Hiltensperger, encaustic painting representing Zeuxis' grape and the birds, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, 1842. 
Johann Georg Hiltensperger, Zeuxis’ grapes and the birds (1842)


The story may sound far-fetched, eliciting strained disbelief from modern readers. However, the tale found unexpected support yesterday at London’s King’s Cross St Pancras tube station. As a passenger with a Great Dane on a lead was waiting for the train, the dog started barking at a full-wall advert on the other side of the tracks showing a Mastiff and a small pigeon (I didn’t pay attention to what the advert was, nor have I gone back since to check). Bursting in laughter, people thought the Dane was barking at the other dog, but the owner explained hers usually barked at birds. The pigeon had clearly captured the dog’s attention. After this, I find it easier to believe that birds may be drawn to realistic depictions, whether ancient or modern.




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