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Anton Raphael Mengs Photo

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
Movements and Styles:
The Rococo
,
The Baroque
,
Neoclassicism
"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"
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Anton Raphael Mengs Signature
"It seems to me indubitable that the noblest part of painting is not the one that only delights the eye and makes the works appeal to men completely ignorant of art, but rather, the most appreciable parts of a work are those that satisfy the understanding and please those who make use of the powers of the soul."
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Anton Raphael Mengs Signature
"Invention is the true poetry of the painting already formed in the mind of the painter, who later represents the case as if he had seen it."
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Anton Raphael Mengs Signature
"Some hold the erroneous belief that the single practice is worth more than all the rules, and that without them there have been great architects. This is very false, as I could prove it if there was a need for it. Without reason and without rules it will be a coincidence to do something good; not being possible to reach a certain end without a sure guide that leads us to it."
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Anton Raphael Mengs Signature

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.

Accomplishments

  • Taking his lead from Greek and Roman art, and overlapping it with the expressiveness of Raphael; Titian's mastery of color; and Correggio's use of chiaroscuro, Mengs took the prevailing Baroque and Rococo tendencies and transformed them into the style that would bridge the Baroque period and the new era of Neoclassicism.
  • In 1757 Mengs took on the commission to paint his first Roman ceiling decoration at the church of Sant' Eusebio. Although it was his first monumental work, it is considered his greatest masterpiece. It provided a clear demonstration of Mengs's preference for simplicity of symbolism and figures rendered with classical balance and self-restraint. His fresco stands a primary example of the transition from the Baroque to the Neoclassical style.
  • Mengs believed fervently in the idea that artistic excellence could only be achieved through the close study of antiquity and through a move towards classical revivalism. He was, however, a single-minded artist who was able to appreciate the potential for contemporary styling. In signature works, such as The Dream of Joseph (1773), he demonstrated his aesthetic dexterity by introducing elements of both Baroque illusionism and Rococo coloring into his work. It is for this reason that historians have been apt to locate him a position in both Baroque and Neoclassical schools.
  • Mengs first made his name as a portraitist working with pastels. Indeed, his handling of pastels was unrivaled. In early portraits, such as that of the Irish aristocrat William Burton Conyngham, he produced highly saturated colors of such polished brilliance that, on first look, his portraits were regularly mistaken for oil paintings.
  • Between them, Mengs and the German art historian, archaeologist, and theorist J.J. Winckelmann, published a Neoclassical philosophy on art. Writing in Spanish, Italian and German, Mengs's authored/co-authored a number of works in this vein. But it was through his 1762 treatise, Reflections on Beauty and Taste in Painting, which, in tandem with his paintings, exerted considerable influence over the direction in which fine art would progress.

Biography of Anton Raphael Mengs

<i>The Judgement of Paris</i> (1757)

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

1752

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 (1754-55)
1754-55

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 (1757-59)
1757-59

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

Parnassus (1761)
1761

Parnassus

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

1773

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

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (c. 1777)
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 - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dancing Faun (1778)
1778

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


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Anton Raphael Mengs
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Francisco Goya
    Francisco Goya
  • No image available
    Johann Joachim Winckelmann
  • No image available
    Giacomo Casanova
  • No image available
    Ventura Rodríguez
  • No image available
    Antonio Ponz
Artists
  • No image available
    Anton von Maron
  • No image available
    Agustín Esteve
  • No image available
    Francisco Bayeu
  • No image available
    Mariano Maella
  • No image available
    Gregorio Ferro
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Francisco Goya
    Francisco Goya
  • No image available
    Giacomo Casanova
  • No image available
    Manuel Salvador Carmona
  • No image available
    Ventura Rodríguez
  • No image available
    Antonio Ponz
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Anton Raphael Mengs Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 23 Aug 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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