According to the story in Pliny’s Natural History, Apelles, the most famous painter of ancient Greece, fell in love with Campaspe, the favourite of the Emperor Alexander the Great, while painting her portrait. In homage, Alexander gave Campaspe to the artist. During the Renaissance, this story became an occasion for painters to praise the nobility of their art – and their patrons.
The famous Venitian painter, Tiepolo depicts himself as Apelles, and his wife, Cecilia (sister of the Venetian painters Gian Antonio and Francesco Guardi), as Campaspe. Their servant, Ali, watches from the far right. One of the two paintings in the background of the studio illustrates Moses and the Brazen Serpent. The detail Apelles is shown applying to the canvas has been selected with poignant wit. Tiepolo likely created the lighthearted picture for himself or a close acquaintance.