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Anton Raphael Mengs Photo

Anton Raphael Mengs - Biography and Legacy

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

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.

<i>Portrait of Prince Elector Frederic Christian of Saxony</i> (1751). In his half-length portrait, the prince is adorned in luxurious and richly-colored clothing and armor and gazes into the distance, conveying a sense of calm regal surety.

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

<i>Pleasure</i> (1754). This work demonstrates Mengs's preference for classical standards. The figure of <i>Pleasure</i> is realized by using subtly blended coloring and delicate modeling. It was styled on the work the sixteenth/seventeenth century iconographer, Cesare Ripa.

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.

A self-portrait by Mengs is from 1773, six years before his death. This portrait was meticulously copied by Giuseppe Macpherson as one of a series (224) miniatures he made for the art collector and patron Lord Cowper.

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".

<i>Helios as Personification of Midday</i> (1765). This work, showing the Sun God, Helios, comes from a series of paintings with personifications of the times of day, which were intended as <i>sopraportas</i> (paintings mounted above doors) for the private bedroom of Maria Luisa of Parma, Princess of Asturia. Mengs presents an idealized vision of beauty, drawing influence from Greek antiquity and the color palette of Titian.

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

For this 1774 self-portrait, the poet Tomás de Iriarte composed a Latin inscription which read: “Anton Raphael Mengs, greatest of painters, worthy of being painted by himself, immortalized his face with the same brush with which he gained the immortality of his fame”.

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

A self-portrait by Mengs is from 1773, six years before his death. This portrait was meticulously copied by Giuseppe Macpherson as one of a series (224) miniatures he made for the art collector and patron Lord Cowper.

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.

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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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