Anton Raphael Mengs

German Painter

Born: March 12, 1728
Ústí nad Labem, Bohemia, Habsburg Empire (Now the Czech Republic)
Died: June 29, 1779
Rome, Papal States
He who effectively studies and observes the works of great men with the true desire to imitate them, makes himself capable of producing works which resemble them, because he considers the reasons with which they are done [...] and this makes him an imitator without being a plagiarist

Summary of Anton Raphael Mengs

Mengs, referred to at the time as the "German Raphael", was regarded by many in his day as Europe's most important living painter. He was the closest friend of the theorist Johann Joachim (J.J.) Winckelmann and, in the two men's search for the rules of a "universal art", provided much of the theoretical inspiration - based on anatomy, symmetry, simplicity - behind Neoclassicism. Mengs was a strong advocate of formal arts education and national art academies with many of his former pupils going on to achieve prominent positions in Academies in Copenhagen, Vienna, Dresden and Turin.


The Life of Anton Raphael Mengs

Mengs was a supreme advocate of art as a learned discipline that promotes classical specifications: "Without reason and without rules it will be a coincidence to do something good", he wrote, adding that it would "not being possible to reach a certain end without a sure guide that leads us to it".

Progression of Art


The Pertinent Magdalene

In his desire to create the "new Venice" ("Augustan Dresden") in Saxony, Augustus III had gathered together a small army of Italian intellectuals and artists at his Dresden Court. In addition to physicians and priests, his Italian contingent was represented by a poet (Stefano Benedetto Pallavicini), an architect (Gaetano Chiaveri), a sculptor (Lorenzo Mattielli), a set designer (Giuseppe Galli Bibiena) and various painters including Bernardo Bellotto, Giovanni Battista Casanova, Lorenzo Rossi, and Stefano Torelli. For their part, Mengs, and his fellow court painter, Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich, were sent off in the opposite direction with the instruction to familiarize themselves with Classical and Renaissance art. As the art historian Tristan Weddigen describes, "A tight network of diplomats and art agents was at the services of the Saxon court in Italy, especially in Venice and Bologna, thus fostering the importation of goods and ideas from the Italian peninsula to Saxony. Rather than a neo-Renaissance 'Florence on the Elbe' or a 'German Florence' [...] Augustan Dresden was first meant to become a new baroque Venice".

In 1752, Mengs held a royal scholarship in Rome and it was here that he painted The Pertinent Magdalene. It was intended as a "companion" to Correggio's Magdalen. Weddigen writes, Mengs "was aiming for strategic emulation: by trying to imitate and surpass [Correggio's] painting - which, for the Catholic art collector, embodied the official and canonized ideal [of Magdalen] - the convert [from Protestantism to Catholicism] Mengs fulfilled the aesthetic expectations associated with his appointment as court painter [and would help] achieve the transfer of good taste from Italy to Saxony".

Weddigen comments on the "extraordinary number of Magdalen paintings and the concentration of Catholic iconography" in Augustus III's collection. Mengs's Magdalen is easily distinguishable, however, by her semi-nudity. Weddigen writes, "Since the sixteenth century, the female nude had testified to the potency of painting, and over the course of Catholic reform [she has] satisfied two diametrically opposed needs: the art collector's sensual-aesthetic ones as well as the Catholic monarch's ones for representation and decorum". In Augustus III's letters (published in 1763), Weddigen describes how the King expressed his appreciation of "Mengs's Mary Magdalen so much that he kept it in his bedroom [...] although he used to say that Mengs's Magdalen did not seem to be fully and truly repentant yet".

Oil on canvas - Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, Germany


Portrait of William Burton Conyngham

Early in his career, Mengs focused on portraiture, first working with pastels, as seen in this portrait of William Burton Conyngham, an Irish aristocrat who went on to become a Member of Parliament. The portrait was likely commissioned by Conyngham as a memento of his Grand Tour (that is, the custom of the time for young, wealthy, European men to travel around Europe to acquire greater knowledge and become more "cultured"). In the quarter-length portrait, Conyngham is depicted looking off into the distance to his right, with an expression that captures the spontaneity of youth and prideful self-assurance.

Mengs was exceptional in his use of pastels, managing to achieve such highly saturated colors and glossy brilliance that these works appeared to have been painted with oil paints. This is evident here in the rich red velvet cloak worn by Conyngham, as well as the reflection of light on the sitter's nose and lips and the wet look in his eyes. This particular talent led Mengs to become a highly sought-after portraitist at an extremely young age. Art historian David Bardeen notes that Mengs's style of portrait painting influenced the slightly younger French painter Francois-André Vincent. Says Bardeen: "Like Mengs, Vincent employed many of the same tools - the casually elegant clothes, the parted lips, the natural hair and penetrating eyes - to grant his subject an intriguing combination of quiet dignity and psychological intensity".

Pastel on paper on canvas - Getty Center, Los Angeles, California


The Apotheosis of Saint Eusebius

In 1757 Mengs took on the commission to paint the ceiling of the church of Sant' Eusebio in Rome, the first monumental work in the city and the artist's first fresco. Mengs's art embodied both the conventional and the new and with this fresco he showed his preference for simplicity and restraint.

Widely considered his masterpiece, the fresco depicts Saint Eusebius, a fourth-century Sardinian bishop, at the center of the elongated pictorial space, wearing white and red robes. His left hand is outstretched and held palm-up, and his right hand clutches his chest, as his face looks up toward the bright light shining down from the top of the work, as though he is accepting the glory of God with reverence. He is surrounded by a crowd of putti (some of whom hold the iconographic symbols for Saint Eusebius, a chalice and chain), and angels, one of whom holds the Prologue of St. John's Gospel, and another who holds up a phrase from the creed of Nicene Christianity, "homoousios to Patri" ("consubstantial with the Father").

In this ceiling fresco, and another, Parnassus (1761), which Mengs executed at the Villa Albani, Rome, Mengs began to turn away from the illusionism and dynamism of the Baroque style, and instead imbued the works with the sense of Classicism that he wished to return to art. He drew from classical sculpture in his depiction of human figures, exercised restraint in the compositions, and kept the symbolism simple. In this regard, The Apotheosis of Saint Eusebius is generally considered to be more successful than Parnassus, though both were among his most influential and famous works, which helped catalyze the rise of Neoclassicism. By choosing to undertake such an important ceiling fresco, moreover, Mengs's work joined a long and illustrious Italian artistic tradition.

Fresco - The church of S. Eusebio, Rome



This ceiling fresco, commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Albani, represents Mengs's intent to move away from the Baroque style. The composition is loosely inspired by Raphael's fresco Parnas in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace, with the scene set outdoors in front of a small grove of trees, with Apollo (the Greek "Sun God", and God of the arts) at the center, recognizable by his typical accoutrements: a crown, a laurel wreath which he holds in his right hand, and the lyre he holds in his left. Two groups of Muses are depicted at each side of the work, with Calliope, Polyhymnia, Euterpe, Melpomene (mother of the Muses) and Urania at the right side, and Clio, Thalia, Erato, and Terpsichore at the left side. The majority of these Muses stand or sit, looking at Apollo in admiration or adoration, while Erato and Terpsichore are depicted dancing gleefully; their robes billowing out as they twirl around one another.

Mengs's close friend, art historian, archaeologist, and fellow lover of antiquities, J.J. Winckelmann, advised Mengs closely on the design of this work, encouraging him to keep the composition shallow, simple, and uncrowded, with the majority of the figures in static poses. Art historian Thomas Pelzel describes this work, meanwhile, as a "Raphaelesque composition with heavy overtones of eighteenth-century 'Grecian taste'", while also noting that "Mengs's composition is sufficiently original that we cannot accuse him of being too deeply in Raphael's debt". Pelzel also asserts that Mengs was likely influenced by the ancient frescoes he had seen at the excavation sites at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Mengs added a personal touch to the work, as well, painting Clio with the features of his wife, Margarita.

Fresco - Villa Albani, Rome


The Dream of Joseph

Representations of Joseph were rare in Renaissance art probably because the Catholic church was uneasy about his story; especially the ambiguity surrounding the idea that a marriage ceremony, for example, could involve a scene where a bride arrived at the altar with a child already in her arms. For the most part, painters avoided the subject as alter pieces while the eternal glory of Mary meant that representations of Joseph were usually as a supporting player and/or a figure consigned to the background. Joseph "came into his own" however in the seventeenth and eighteenth century as painters looked for new impetus and innovations. The gospel of Matthew describes three dreams in which Joseph is visited by an angel. The first tells him to take the child and his mother to Egypt (to escape King Herod); the second comes after Herod's death and he is instructed to return to Israel; the third was to relocate his family to Nazareth in the region of Galilee to hide from vengeful Archelaus who had succeeded his father, Herod. Mengs's painting is thought to refer to the second dream.

The composition is a seamless blending of Baroque illusionism and the Classical revival. Vestiges of the Rococo style are also evident in the pastel coloring and the use of light and shade gives the painting its strong contrasts: the youthful, idealized, angel who looks like she has been carved in porcelain against the weathered and muscular carpenter rendered with a vivid realism. The windblown hair of the messenger suggests the urgency of the instruction while we can see that Joseph has already accepted his holy order by laying down his tools and taking up his walking staff. The upper right-hand corner in one of all pervading light since it represents the heavens, while Joseph, cast in shadow, represents the earth. However, Mengs swathes Joseph in a golden yellow robe which imbues him with saintly qualities. Viewed as a whole, Mengs counters the Baroque illusionism of the painting by presenting his scene to the viewer at normal eye-level.

Oil on oak wood panel - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

c. 1777

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

This posthumous portrait of Winckelmann (he died 1768) depicts Mengs's colleague holding an edition of Homer's Iliad; a clear allusion to the artist's respect for his friend's erudition and learning. Winckelmann's standing in the pantheon of arts scholars was by now well-established and, according to art historian, Thomas Pelzel, his "aesthetic analysis" was a "foundation stone for of modern art history methodology". He was best known for his magnum-opus Geschichte der Kunst des Alterhums (History of the Art of Antiquity) (1764), a work that provided a definition of an ideal beauty in art. Alas, Winckelmann's reputation, and his own elevated self-esteem, was, in Pelzel's words, "sadly impaired by tardy recognition of his embarrassing lapse of judgment in having published in its pages an enthusiastic description of antique paintings which were in fact forgeries".

As Pelzel describes it: "Having ferreted out as much information as possible on the works, Winckelmann, with palpable satisfaction at having thus forestalled his scholastic rivals, published the unique corpus of paintings in the first edition of Geschichte der Kunst, only to discover a few years later to his bitter chagrin that he had fallen afoul of a group of forgeries. His bitterness was compounded by the realization that these forgeries were instruments in a plot against his reputation as an antiquarian, hatched by one Giovanni Casanova (younger brother of the boudoir adventurer, Jacopo Casanova de Seingalt), with the apparent connivance of Winckelmann's close friend and apostle of Neoclassicism, Anton Raphael Mengs".

The forgeries in question included Jupiter Kissing Ganymede which was imitative of a number of works uncovered at Herculaneum and Pompeii and, as the only surviving painting from the group, has been "assigned to Mengs's own hand". According to the biographical account by his friend and admirer, Giuseppe Niccola d'Azara ("Memorie concernenti la vita di Antonio Raffaello Mengs") on his deathbed, Mengs "confessed to having forged Jupiter Kissing Ganymede, urgently requesting that his 'cheat upon antiquity' be made public". The initial motivation behind Mengs's decision to help destroy his friend's reputation remains, however, a mystery.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Dancing Faun

This, one of many nude studies executed by Mengs, was based on an ancient Roman statue, also titled Dancing Faun (although it would be more accurate to refer to the figure as a satyr), currently in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The first record of this statue comes from 1665, when it was in Florence in the collection of Ferdinando II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The figure is shown holding cymbals in each hand, with his body in a contorted position, as if in the midst of dancing. Mengs did not finish defining and shading the figure's feet, however the rest of the figure demonstrates his strong talent for depicting the human body and its musculature.

Polt writes that "Mengs looked for inspiration to the ancients, believing that [they] had achieved excellence through a 'philosophical' approach to nature and that the moderns could match and surpass them". Although the Dancing Faun sketch comes at the very end of Mengs's life, he had spent his entire life studying ancient art and artifacts, and using their approach to artistic creation as the basis for his own work. He had helped usher in the age of Neoclassicism, which would soon replace Baroque and Rococo as the predominant style in European (especially Italian) art. Mengs's student Heinrich Füger called him "an artist educated by science who practices art with philosophical acumen".

Chalk on paper

Biography of Anton Raphael Mengs


Mengs was born in Aussig, a small town in Czechia. He was a middle child, to Ismael Mengs, a miniaturist, originally from Denmark, but who later relocated to Dresden, Germany where he took up the post of director at the Academy of Fine arts. Ismael, a harsh patriarch, named his son in honor of the painters Antonio Allegri (better known as Correggio) and Raphael, with what literature professor and Guggenheim fellow John Herman Richard Polt calls "single-minded, even maniacal, rigor [with the intent to prepare his son] to rival these great predecessors". Both of Anton's sisters, Therese and Julia also went on to become painters. Religion was not part of the children's upbringing (though it has been posited that they may have been Jewish or Lutheran), however later in life Anton converted to Catholicism.

Although Ismael was married, Anton and Therese's mother was actually the family's housekeeper, Charlotte Bormann. For the latter part of both pregnancies, Ismael took Charlotte "on vacation" to Ústí nad Labem. After the births, they would return to Dresden. Polt suggests that "Since Ismael was already known for his nonchalance in religious matters, he may have feared that news of his illegitimate family might prejudice his standing as Saxon court painter, and he took great pains to keep its existence a secret". Eventually, Ismael and Charlotte married but she passed away shortly after the birth of their fourth child. When Anton was still just 13, he moved to Rome with his father and siblings.

Education and Early Training

In 1740, one year before the family's permanent move the Italian capital, Mengs accompanied his father on a trip to Rome. It was at that point that he began to study art seriously, and learned to draw nudes under the tutelage of the classicist Marco Benefial. Even in this short period of time Mengs had garnered a reputation as a precocious prodigy. Having returned briefly to Dresden, he became successful as a pastel portrait painter, with a unique ability to produce highly saturated colors and a rich glossy quality with dry pastel crayons. These works were sometimes even presumed to be oil paintings (though he didn't begin working with oil paint until 1746).

Back in Rome, Mengs studied under acclaimed Baroque painter Sebastiano Conca between 1741-44. In 1745, still aged just seventeen, Mengs was made a court painter by Augustus III of Saxony, and was promoted to chief court painter at the age of twenty-three. Around this time, he made return trips to Rome to further his artistic education. In Italy he married the protestant Margarita Guazzi (who duly abjured her faith so as not to hinder her husband's career), who had sat for one of his portraits in 1748. He also travelled to Naples to paint Queen María Amalia (daughter of Augustus III) and her family.

Although he continued to execute some of his portraits with pastels, from around 1746 Mengs began to work predominantly with oil paints, which he used in portraits such as that of Prince Elector Frederic Christian of Saxony, painted the same year that Augustus III of Saxony made him his chief court painter. Mengs had a rival in portraiture, Italian painter Pompeo Batoni, who was also highly accomplished and sought-after by aristocrats. Yet, as art historian David Bardeen asserts, the two portraitists demonstrated quite different styles. Whereas Batoni included a greater number of props and symbols in his portraits (such as in his Portrait of John Talbot (1773)), Mengs focused more closely on his sitters' facial features in an attempt to capture the personality of the individual.

Mature Period

Having bonded over a shared a passion for Ancient Greek, Greco-Roman, and Roman art and artifacts, Mengs developed a close friendship around 1755 with the German art historian, archaeologist, and neoclassical theorist, Johann Joachim (J.J.) Winckelmann. This connection likely brought Mengs to the attention of King Charles of Naples, who, also interested in ancient art, had funded excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, and had an impressive antiquities collection. The excavation at Herculaneum and Pompeii would however leave a stain on the reputations of both Mengs and Winckelmann. It transpired in later years that Mengs (who confessed to his crime on his deathbed) had with, Jupiter Kissing Ganymede (1761), forged a work that was passed off, with others, as an original work from the excavation. For his part, Winckelmann had not spotted the deceit and duly analyzed Mengs's and the other forgeries as genuine works in the first edition of his seminal work, Geschichte der Kunst.

In 1759, Charles became King Charles III of Spain, and brought Mengs to Madrid in 1761 to work as a court painter. Here he worked on decorating the royal palaces. The King provided well for Mengs. He gave him a residence, horses and a carriage, and several servants. He received a generous salary, too, and pensions for Mengs's five daughters and protection for his two sons. Mengs advised the King on matters such as acquisitions for the royal art collections, judgment of the work of other Spanish painters, the establishment of a public art gallery at the Palacio del Buen Retiro, and the direction of royal factories, such as the Madrid tapestry factory, where he introduced the popular images of native Spanish artists into tapestries.

Mengs was also to be active in the Academia de San Fernando. However, many members were less than thrilled about being lectured by a foreign artist whom they viewed as pretentious and conceited. As Polt explains, "Mengs believed that the Academy should be primarily a school of and for artists, yet it also contained highly placed laymen who saw it as a tool in the government's program of enlightenment and development. These members dominated the Academy, when in Mengs's view they should have had no voice in its affairs". Mengs also increased the amount of training in theory, perspective, and anatomy. Many members took objection to this new curriculum.

In 1762, Mengs published Thoughts on the Beauty and Taste in Painting (Gedanken über die Schönheit und den Geschmack in der Malerei). His friend, biographer, and Spanish diplomat José Nicolás de Azara, who published a number of his other writings (after Mengs's death), argued indeed that Mengs "was a philosopher and painted for philosophers"; that he was born "to restore the arts"; and that his art revealed more about the "movements of the soul" than could "the greatest philosopher since Socrates".

Mengs remained in Spain until 1769. He then returned to Rome where he decorated the Camera dei Papiri in the Vatican before returning once more to Madrid where he stayed between 1773 to 1777. Seventeenth-century Spanish art writer Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez wrote that nearly all young painters who came to Madrid (including Francisco Bayeu, Mariano Maella, Gregorio Ferro, Francisco Ramos, and Francisco Agustín) searched Mengs out, as they found in him "a teacher and protector who guided them along the right path and obtained commissions and promotions for those he considered worthy". Mengs also developed a friendship and collaborative professional relationship with engraver Manuel Salvador Carmona, who later married Mengs's daughter Anna María Theresia.

Late Period and Death

Despite his success and prosperity in Spain, Mengs and his family were unhappy and uncomfortable in Madrid. In a letter written to one of his students in Rome in 1768, he stated: "never in the world have I lived more humiliated and more afflicted, I am forced to spend everything in this country and I live devoid of any fate of pleasures [...] the hardships always increase [...] my strength deteriorates almost daily [...] my youth passes, without my being able to merit among a people of enemies [...] for all this and for other troubles I have lost all joy, nor is life more desirable for me".

Mengs's health had suffered due in part to the large amount of fresco work that he had undertaken. In 1769, the family returned to Rome, where it is believed that he was introduced to Francisco Goya by Azara in 1771. Back in Madrid in 1774, Mengs requested that Goya come to paint cartoons for tapestries, and later recommended him for commissions and a regular salary as a court painter. He returned permanently to Rome in June of 1777 where he spent his final years painting frescos, altarpieces, and portraits of touring English aristocrats, for whom he also sometimes acted as an art dealer. Mengs was highly respected by the Romans and was admitted to the Accademia di San Luca and the Accademia del Nudo where he held a prestigious teaching position. In 1779 Mengs succumbed to tuberculosis and passed away, leaving behind some twenty children (seven of whom were pensioned by the King of Spain). He was buried in the Church of Santi Michele e Magno in Rome.

The Legacy of Anton Raphael Mengs

Mengs, with French artists Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, were the key figures in the development of the early Neoclassical style; a development that effectively replaced the highly ornate, decorative Baroque and Rococo styles. The return to a more austere Greek and Roman classicism did not only occur in art, but also in the social consciousness. This shift in thinking was brought about to a large extent by the writings of Mengs's closest friend, the art historian, archaeologist, and neoclassical theorist, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (whom he nevertheless tricked into believing a work he had forged was a genuine work). That dent in their friendship notwithstanding, the two men promoted Neoclassicism as a total philosophy for living; an attempt, that is, to return society to morality, rationality, and civility (virtues that had been displaced by the frivolity and vanity embodied within the Baroque and Rococo styles).

In addition to his paintings, Mengs wrote his own theories on art in Spanish, Italian, and German, endorsing a return to study of the works of the Ancients, particularly in terms of focusing on symmetry, mathematics, and anatomy. According to literature professor and Guggenheim fellow John Herman Richard Polt, "Mengs considered painting an imitation of nature, capable of surpassing nature in some respects. This imitation, however, is not to be slavish copying, but an 'ideal' imitation". As Mengs himself wrote, art "must imitate those parts of natural objects that convey to us the unique essence of the thing we perceive". Polt continues that art was "for Mengs a way to knowledge, through analysis and subsequent reconstitution. Its most important part is intellectual, not physical," and that painting was "a noble or liberal art, because it requires study, a superior intellect, and a noble spirit, besides being a means for the acquisition of honor and nobility".

Although, as Polt asserts, "Mengs was widely regarded in his day as Europe's greatest living painter," and his treatise, Reflections on Beauty and Taste in Painting was highly influential during his own lifetime, shortly after his death his reputation "declined precipitously". However, recent art historians, including Thomas Pelzel and Xavier de Salas, have revived interest in Mengs and his work, with Pelzel referring to him as "a painter of major talents" and "one of the last major painters of the Renaissance-Baroque tradition". For his part, de Salas called him a "great painter" responsible for developing a unique style that conveyed "a dream of beauty". His influence can be found in the work of countless eminent Neoclassical artists, including Jacques-Louis David, Benjamin West, Angelica Kauffman, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Francisco Bayeu, Anton von Maron, Agustín Esteve, Mariano Maella, Gregorio Ferro, Francisco Ramos, and Francisco Agustín.

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Cite article
Correct article