The Drawn Curtain
The Parable of Zeuxis and Parrhasius
Zeuxis and Parrhasius were among the greatest painters of classical Greece, a culture for whom mimetic representation was an imperative virtue of art. Once, a contest was held to determine which of them was the more skilled.
Zeuxis, the favorite, revealed a dazzling still life so realistic that the birds flew down and began pecking at it, trying to eat the grapes from the canvas. Next, Parrhasius produced his picture, veiled behind a curtain. Zeuxis, emboldened by his picture’s success, demanded Parrhasius draw the curtain aside to uncover his inferior painting. But Parrhasius said that he could not. He could not draw the curtain because the curtain itself was the painting. The crowd was shocked. Indeed, they now realized, the image was rendered with such delicacy that at first glance one could not tell it apart from the real thing.
Parrhasius had clearly won the contest and Zeuxis yielded, bestowing enthusiastic praise upon his competitor; for while Zeuxis had fooled the birds right out of the sky, it was Parrhasius that managed to fool everyone else, including his opponent, the great artist.
“But for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence, … truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.”
- Feuerbach, preface to the second edition of the essence of Christianity