DIOGENESDiogenes, who lived in the 4th century BCE in Greece, was just as controversial as a person as he was provocative as a philosopher. He is seen as the most important representative of the school of Cynicism, which taught that the undeveloped man could free himself from his stupidity, self-deception,ignorance, laziness, pretence, vanity, blind obedience and hypocrisy through a process of self-realization, to be able to achieve a state of self-reliance, happiness and freedom. Diogenes taught by living example. Making a virtue of poverty, he deliberately rejected any material comfort, living naked in the streets alongside the dogs, demonstrating that wisdom and happiness belong to the man who is truly independent of society.
When at one time Corinth was besieged by the Macedonians, everyone suddenly started building various defences. But not Diogenes, he just went to the nearby mountain with his tub, in which he always slept. Every day he pushed his tub all the way up the mountain and in the evening he slowly rolled it down again. After a few days observing this, the Corinthians asked Diogenes what he was doing. Then he replied that he also wanted to do something useless. You could say that with actions like these Diogenes should be seen as the first performance artist in world history.
There are two other famous anecdotes from the life of Diogenes that are frequently depicted by many painters. In both of these, remarkably, light plays a major role. One of these depicts Diogenes, walking the streets in full daylight carrying a burning lamp obviously searching for something. When asked why, he just answered: “I am looking for a true and honest man, but can’t find any”. Another is a story about the supposed meeting with Alexander the Great. Attracted by his spreading fame, the king decided to visit the city of Corinth to meet this remarkable philosopher. There he found Diogenes, while he was sitting naked on the floor, relaxing in the morning sunlight. After talking to him, finally Alexander was so impressed by the wisdom of this humbly living man that he spoke the famous words: “Tell me what I can do for you, even if it is half of my kingdom”. To which Diogenes, looking up at undoubtedly the most powerful and wealthiest man of his time, replied: “Take a step aside, you are blocking my sunlight”.
One of the most notable depictions of Diogenes was painted in 1652 by Caesar van Everdingen. He literally transposed Diogenes to a public square in 17thcentury Alkmaar, where the ancient Greek philosopher appeared not able to find a sincere person amongst the gathered Steijn family either. This remarkable ‘portrait historié’ is currently exhibited in the Prince William V Gallery in The Hague, which, once erected as an eighteenth century painting gallery – the oldest in the Netherlands, formed the basis of the Mauritshuis museum, a century later.
Other painters on the same subject (click to view painting):
- Caspar de Crayer
- Hendrick ter Brugghen
- Jacob Jordaens
- Caesar van Everdingen
- Antonio Zanchi
- Gaetano Gandolfi
- Jean-Léon Gérôme