Mengs, Anton Raphael (1728–1779)

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MENGS, ANTON RAPHAEL (17281779), German painter. The son of Ismael Israel Mengs, court painter to King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Anton Raphael was born at Aussig in Bohemia in 1728. His strict father was determined that his children would become artists, including his daughters Theresia Concordia (17251808?) and Juliane Charlotte (1728after 1789). The former married Mengs's student, Anton von Maron, and became a member of the Accademia di San Luca, the papal arts academy in Rome in which Mengs was later to assume a position of great influence.

Mengs's early works are pastel portraits and drawings after antique sculptures and Old Master paintings made during a trip to Rome in 17401744. In 1745, after his return to the electoral court at Dresden, Frederick Augustus commissioned him to paint portraits of himself and his family. It was during this residence in Dresden that Mengs switched from pastel to oils. After a second sojourn in Rome in 17461749, he returned to Saxony and received commissions for three altarpieces for the Catholic court church, including the impressive scene of the Ascension executed for the high altar. This important commission and his appointment as court painter enabled him to return to Rome in 1751 for further study, and he never saw Dresden again.

For the next decade Mengs worked successfully in Rome and Naples. His growing reputation earned him a professorship at the Accademia del Nudo and a free studio for the study of the male nude established by Pope Benedict XIV (reigned 17401758). He was also elected to the Accademia di San Luca and enjoyed a steady stream of commissions for altarpieces, cabinet pictures, and portraits. These include the ceiling fresco Saint Eusebius in Glory for the church of San Eusebio in 1757; the world-famous Parnassus, executed for Cardinal Alessandro Albani's villa on the Via Salaria; and historical paintings such as Cleopatra Kneeling before Octavian (17601761), commissioned by Richard Colt Hoare, and Perseus and Andromeda (1771), executed for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. In addition, he painted portraits of British travelers on a grand tour to augment his income after his pension from Dresden was discontinued in 1756.

In 1761 Mengs became court artist to King Charles III of Spain. While in Madrid, he executed ceiling frescoes in the Palacio Real, including the Triumph of Aurora (17621764) and the Apotheosis of Hercules (17621769). He also painted altarpieces and portraits of members of the royal family. Due to Mengs's ill health, in 1769 Charles granted him permission to go to Rome, and he returned to Spain only in 17741776 to complete frescoes in the Royal Palace, including the Apotheosis of Trajan. His most important late Roman commission, the Allegory of History, was painted for the ceiling of the Sala dei Papiri in the Vatican Library as part of the ambitious expansion of the papal collections that eventually became the Pio-Clementino Museum.

Although he was long derided as an uninventive eclectic, his style was in fact progressive, drawing inspiration from canonical artists such as Raphael, Correggio, Titian, Carracci, and Poussin while integrating these classicizing models with the mania for the antique that had swept Europe in the wake of the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mengs was deeply interested in the pedagogy of art based on advanced academic principles, and he was a prominent reformer in both the Accademia di San Luca and the Academia di San Fernando in Madrid. The Villa Albani Parnassus is arguably the first truly neoclassical painting, given the dramatic reduction in the standard illusionistic devices of shading and foreshortening and its emphasis on strong local color. Nothing so visually radical was to appear until the 1790s.

Mengs was one of the most famous artists in Europe in the eighteenth century, but it is as an aesthetic critic and art historian that he is best remembered today. His friendship with the celebrated German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Cardinal Albani's librarian, helped steer Mengs's taste in the direction of more stringent classicizing currents. His Gedanken über die Schönheit and über den Geschmack in der Malerey (Zurich, 1762; Thoughts concerning Beauty and Taste in Painting) and Ragionamento su l'Accademia delle Belle Arti di Madrid (Madrid, 1766; Argument concerning the Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid) reveal a reverence toward the classicizing art of the Renaissance and baroque eras combined with a strong sense of the social utility of the arts in an enlightened society. His complete literary works were published in 1780 and helped promote a more austere form of international neoclassicism. It is also significant that Mengs was among the first to suggest that canonical ancient masterpieces, such as the Apollo Belvedere, (Pio-Clementino Museum, the Vatican; fourth century b.c.e.) were in fact Roman copies of lost Greek originals, a controversial claim that gained general acceptance only at the end of the eighteenth century.

Struggling with poor health in the last years of his life, Mengs died in Rome on 29 June 1779. Awarded many honors and titles, Mengs enjoyed a level of international prestige enjoyed by no German artist since Albrecht Dürer.

See also Benedict XIV (pope) ; Neoclassicism ; Winckelmann, Johann Joachim .


Honisch, Dieter. Anton Raphael Mengs und die Bildform des Frühklassizismus. Recklinghausen, Germany, 1965.

Pelzel, Thomas Oberlin. "Anton Raphael Mengs and Neoclassicism: His Art, His Influence and His Reputation." Unpublished dissertation, Princeton, 1968.

Röttgen, Steffi. Anton Raphael Mengs 17281779 and His British Patrons. London, 1993.

. Anton Raphael Mengs, 17281779: Das malerische und zeichnerische Werk. Munich, 1999.

Christopher M. S. Johns

Anton Raphael Mengs

views updated May 23 2018

Anton Raphael Mengs

The artistic theories as well as the works of the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) were influential in the rejection of baroque ideas and the triumph of neoclassicism which took place in the late 18th century in Rome.

Anton Raphael Mengs was born in Aussig, Bohemia, on March 22, 1728, the son of a painter, Ismael Mengs, whose pupil he became. Taken to Rome to study with Marco Benefial and Sebastiano Conca from 1741 to 1744, Anton Raphael was said to have sometimes been locked into the Stanze of Raphael in the Vatican overnight by his father to make him copy the master's works—a stark but not untypical example of 18th-century pedagogy.

In 1744, living in Dresden, the 16-year-old artist produced pastel portraits of great accomplishment, particularly of members of the Saxon court. Appointed Saxon court painter in 1746, Mengs soon returned to Rome to continue his studies of ancient and Renaissance art. There he converted to Catholicism, married, and established himself as one of the leading painters of the city, at that time the most international artistic center of Europe. His study of ancient sculpture and of the masters of the High Renaissance, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Correggio, became the basis for his personal style. His friendship with Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the celebrated proponent of a return to the "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" of ancient art, influenced most of his artistic theories. Yet, in spite of this lofty and often overly intellectualized classicism, Mengs retained some of the charming vitality and freshness of the rococo, notably in his portraits.

In both the ceiling fresco Apotheosis of St. Eusebius (1757) for the church of S. Eusebio, Rome, and the ceiling fresco Parnassus (1761) for the Villa Albani, Rome, Mengs sought to avoid baroque qualities and emphasize his classicistic doctrines, without really succeeding. Ostentatiously based on his study of classical sculpture, antibaroque in its concept, the Parnassusis one of his less appealing works, in spite of its tremendous fame and influence.

In 1761 Mengs was called to Madrid, where he was appointed court painter and worked feverishly, producing frescoes for the royal palaces of Madrid and Aranjuez, as well as many religious paintings, allegorical works, and portraits, all immensely successful, until total exhaustion forced him to stop for a rest in 1768. Back in Rome the following year, he painted the ceiling fresco Allegory of History and Time of the Camera dei Papiri in the Vatican Library, a work of much greater significance than theParnassus, foreshadowing, as it does, the allegorical and historical painting of the coming century.

Mengs returned to Madrid in 1774 for yet another period of work for the Spanish court. His last 2 years were spent in Rome, where he died of tuberculosis on June 29, 1779.

Further Reading

Mengs is discussed in Fritz Novotny, Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1780-1880 (1960), and Eberhard Hempel, Baroque Art and Architecture in Central Europe (1965).

Additional Sources

Pelzel, Thomas, Anton Raphael Mengs and neoclassicism, New York: Garland Pub., 1979. □

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