Anton Raphael Mengs
Born: Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic
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Mengs was born in 1728 at Ústí nad Labem (German: Aussig) in Bohemia, the son of Ismael Mengs , a Danish painter who eventually established himself at Dresden. His elder sister, Therese Maron was also a painter. In 1741 Mengs’s father took him from Dresden to Rome.
In 1749 he was appointed first painter to Frederick Augustus, elector of Saxony, but this did not prevent him from continuing to spend much of his time in Rome. There he married Margarita Guazzi, who had sat for him as a model in 1748. He converted to Catholicism, and in 1754 he became director of the Vatican school of painting. His fresco painting of Parnassus at Villa Albani gained him a reputation as a master painter. In 1749 Mengs accepted a commission from the Duke of Northumberland to make a copy, in oil on canvas, of Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens for his London home. Executed in 1752–5, Mengs’ painting is full-sized, but adapts the composition to a rectangular format, with some additional figures. It is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Mengs died in Rome in June 1779 and was buried in the Roman Church of Santi Michele e Magno.
On two occasions he accepted invitations from Charles III of Spain to go to Madrid. There he produced some of his best work, most notably the ceiling of the banqueting hall of the Royal Palace of Madrid, the subject of which was the Triumph of Trajan and the Temple of Glory. After the completion of this work in 1777, Mengs returned to Rome, where he died two years later, in poor circumstances, leaving twenty children, seven of whom were pensioned by the king of Spain. His portraits and self-portraits recall an attention to detail and insight often lost in his grander paintings.
His closeness to Johann Joachim Winckelmann has enhanced his historical importance. Mengs came to share Winckelmann’s enthusiasm for classical antiquity, and worked to establish the dominance of Neoclassical painting. At the same time, however, the influence of the Roman Baroque remained strong in his work, particularly in his religious paintings. He would have fancied himself the first neoclassicist, while in fact he may be the last flicker of Baroque art. Rudolf Wittkower wrote: “In the last analysis, he is as much an end as a beginning”. In Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert, Goethe regretted that “so much learning should have been allied to a total want of initiative and poverty of invention, and embodied with a strained and artificial mannerism.”
Mengs had a well-known rivalry with the contemporary Italian painter Pompeo Batoni. He was also a friend of Giacomo Casanova. Casanova provides accounts of his personality and contemporary reputation through anecdotes in his Histoire de Ma Vie. Among his pupils in Italy were Anton von Maron, Antonio Maron (Vienna, 1731- Naples 1761). His pupils in Spain included Agustín Esteve.Besides numerous paintings in Madrid, the Ascension and St Joseph at Dresden, Perseus and Andromeda at Saint Petersburg, and the ceiling of the Villa Albani are among his chief works. In 1911, Henry George Percy, 7th Duke of Northumberland, possessed Mengs’s work entitled Holy Family, and the colleges of All Souls and Magdalen, at Oxford, possessed altar-pieces by Mengs.
In his writings, in Spanish, Italian, and German, Mengs expressed an eclectic theory of art, seeing perfection as attainable by a well-schemed combination of diverse excellences: Greek design, with the expression of Raphael, the chiaroscuro of Correggio, and the colour of Titian.