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Anton Raphael Mengs: The Precursor of Neoclassicism

By Anton Raphael Mengs - Source: Steffi Roettgen, Anton Raphael Mengs 1728-1779, vol. 2: Leben und Wirken (Munich: Hirmer, 2003), plate 46.Scan: James Steakley, Public Domain, Link


Producing detailed and refined portraits, frescos and altarpieces that were influential in the rejection of the baroque ideas and the triumph of neoclassicism, the German-Bohemian painter, Anton Raphael Mengs, is acclaimed as the most important painter in Dresden, Rome, and Madrid in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

A child prodigy in his day, Mengs was born in Aussig, Bohemia, on March 22, 1728. Anton was trained by his father Ismael Mengs, a court painter in Dresden. His father brought him up with harsh severity to be a great painter, on the models particularly of Correggio and Raphael from whom he gained his Christian names. In 1740, he was taken to Rome to study with Marco Benefial and Sebastiano Conca from 1741 to 1744.

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.

Mengs’s 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 German writer on classical art, influenced most of his artistic theories and helped in the formation of his Neo-classical style. 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 1761, Mengs was called to Madrid, where he was appointed as a court painter and worked feverishly,producing frescos 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 in 1769, Mengs 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 the Parnassus, 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 two years were spent in Rome, where he died of tuberculosis on June 29, 1779.


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