The story of Phryne

Phryne, the daughter of Epiktes, a native of Thespiai in Boetia, probably settled in Athens after the destruction of her city by the Thebans in 371 BC. She was accused of blasphemy (a capital offense) and defended by the orator Hyperides. As a last resort at her trial, just as sentence was due to be passed, Hyperides pulled off the peplos draping his client's body, and revealed her hidden beauty to the court. The judges, struck with a kind of divine apprehension, could not bring themselves to sanction the laying of violent hands on such beauty. A wealthy and celebrated courtesan, Phryne is popularly thought to have been the model for the Aphrodite of Cnidus, by her lover Praxiteles.

Phryne lies at the heart of a complex process of identification and attribution, involving the statues of Aphrodite for which she is thought to have posed, idealized portraits of her by Praxiteles, and draped or nude effigies which may represent either Phryne or Aphrodite.

In the second half of the 19th century, Phryne nourished the imagination of many French artists. Like Pericles's mistress Aspasia, or the poet Sappho, she perpetuates the classical tradition of illustrious, controversial women of Antiquity. Phryne is thought to have been the subject of 16 paintings and 31 sculptures, most often represented naked, as when she was "unveiled" before her judges.