Probably born at Colophon in Ionia, he first studied under Ephorus of Ephesus, then became a student to Pamphilus at Sicyon (N.H. 35.36.75). He executed a number of paintings for Phillip II and the young Alexander the Great to the advancement of his reputation.
His skill at drawing the human face is the point of a story connecting him with Ptolemy I. This onetime general of Alexander disliked Apelles while they both were in Alexander's retinue, and many years later, while travelling by sea a storm forced Apelles to land in Ptolemy's Egyptian kingdom. Ptolemy's Jester was suborned by Apelles' rivals to convey to him an invitation to dine with Ptolemy, whose surpise arrival enraged the king. Ptolemy demanded to know from Apelles who had given him the invitation, and with a piece of charcoal from the fireplace Apelles drew a likeness on the wall -- which Ptolemy recognized as his Jester in the first strokes of the sketch.
He was a contemporary of Protogenes, whose reputation he advocated. Apelles travelled to Protogenes' home on Rhodes make the acquaintance of this painter he had heard so much about. Arriving at Protogenes' studio, he encountered an old woman who told him that Protogenes was out and asked for his name so she could report who had enquired after him. Observing in the studio a panel Protogenes had prepared for a painting, Apelles walked over to the easel, and taking up a brush told the servant to tell Protogenes that "this came from me" and drew in color an extrememly fine line across the panel. When Protogenes returned, and the old woman explained what had taken place, he examined the line and pronounced that only Apelles could have done so perfect of work; Protogenes then dipped a brush into another color and drew a still finer line above the first one, and asked his servant to show this to the visitor should he return. When Apelles returned, and was shown Protogenes' response, ashamed that he might be bettered he drew in a third color an even finer line between the first two, leaving no room for another display of craftsmanship. On seeing this, Protogenes admitted defeat, and went out to seek Apelles and meet him face-to-face.
Pliny claims that this very painting had been part of the collection of Julius Caesar, but was destroyed when Caesar's mansion on the Palatine Hill burned down. (It is unknown if this story was the inspiration for a similar exchange between the alien Klaatu and the scientist in the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still".)
Pliny states that Apelles made a number of useful innovations to the art of painting, but his recipie for a black varnish -- that both protected and enhanced the colors in his paintings, and created an effect that Pliny praises to no end -- Apelles kept secret and was lost with his death.
His paintings (none of which survive) include:
A number of his paintings were taken to Rome (including Aphrodite Anadyomene and placed there on public display; two compositions that included a portrait of Alexander -- Castor and Pollux with Victory and Alexander the Great, and The Figure of War with his Hands Tied Behind Him Following the Triumphal Chariot of Alexander -- the Emperor Claudius later had Alexander's face replaced with that of his grandfather Augustus.
Pliny connects a number of sayings to Apelles, which may come from Apelles' lost treatise on the art of painting. One comes from Apelles' judgement on Protogenes, that Protogenes knew when his painting was finished: quod manum de tabula scirat -- "[He knew] when to take the hand from the picture." Another refers to his practice of exhibiting his works in the front of his shop, then hiding near by to hear the comments of passers-by. When a cobbler commented on his mistakes in painting a shoe, Apelles made the corrections that very night; the next morning the cobbler noticed the changes, and proud of his effect on the artist's work began to criticize how Apelles portrayed the leg -- whereupon Apelles emerged from his hiding-place to state: Ne sutor ultra crepidam -- "Let the shoemaker venture no further." The last saying Pliny attributes to Apelles refers to the painter's diligence at practicing his art every day: Nulla dies sine linea -- "Not a day without a line drawn."
Such was Apelles' fame that several Renaissance painters modelled themselves on him. Raphael may have portrayed himself as Apelles in the School of Athens and Sandro Botticelli based two paintings -- The birth of Venus and Calumny of Apelles -- on his works.