Anton Raphael Mengs (German, Ústi nad Labem (Aussig) 1728–1779 Rome)
Oil on canvas
35 1/2 x 25 7/8 in. (90 x 65.5 cm)
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 2010
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 612
Born in Bohemia, Mengs became the most important painter in Dresden, Rome, and Madrid in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Whereas Mengs's portraits of prominent sitters are notable for their delicacy, meticulous detail, and refined beauty, his self-portraits are essays in truthfulness. The discolored swelling on his forehead is a physical defect visible from about 1760; declining health forced him to leave his position as court painter at Madrid in 1769, though he returned there between 1774 and 1777. This self-portrait was painted in Madrid in 1776 and dispatched to Genoa; three other, inferior versions are known.
Mengs painted this compelling self-portrait three years before his early death. He was forty-eight and a celebrated artist throughout Europe, a key figure in the creation of Neoclassism. Seated three-quarters to right on a chair upholstered in figured damask, he wears a loose gray painting smock with a wide collar, a russet-colored scarf knotted over a white shirt, and a gold ring, and holds a portfolio. His left arm (actually his right, as this is necessarily a mirror-image) is extended toward an implied easel. There is a discolored swelling on his forehead, a physical defect that is visible in some self-portraits from about 1760. By 1769 Mengs's declining health was such that he had to leave Madrid for Rome, and although he returned to Spain between 1774 and 1777, he died in Rome. This portrait does not disguise his physical and psychic decline.
As the portrait is recorded only as having been in a private collection in Genoa since 1985, its earlier history is a matter of conjecture. It entirely escaped scholarly notice until Steffi Roettgen (2003), who has made a lifelong study of the artist, identified it as the prime version of a composition of which three replicas are known. That this is the prime version is borne out not only by its superior quality but by the technical evidence that during the course of painting Mengs modified the composition (see Technical Notes).
The most important replica is in the Accademia Ligustica, Genoa. According to Carlo Giuseppe Ratti, it was painted in 1776 for Mengs's Genoese friend Giuseppe Tealdo (Ratti had introduced Tealdo to Mengs) and was given to the Accademia Ligustica by Michele Tealdo in 1831 together with two other works by the artist. The other versions are in the Musée Magnin, Dijon, and the Kunstsammlung der Georg August Universität, Göttingen.
Mengs's self-portraits are among the most remarkable documents any eighteenth-century artist has left us. Not only do they span his entire career and attest to the desire of collectors to possess an image of this celebrated innovator, they constitute a sort of public self-reflection. He first represented himself at age sixteen in a pastel of astonishing assurance (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden). In 1773, he sent a large, fully inscribed self-portrait painted in Florence, of which he was very proud, to the R. Galleria degli Autoritratti (Uffizi, Florence; 98 x 73 cm). It is the image of a highly successful artist, one of only three self-portraits conceived on a large scale and with such notable presence (the second is in the collection of the Duque de Alba y Berwick, Madrid, and the third is the MMA picture). The latest self-portrait (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; 56 x 43 cm) is romantic in feeling and dates within a year of his death. Others are in the museums of Liverpool, Madrid, and Munich, and in Spanish private collections. The nearly forty copies of the Uffizi self-portrait that are recorded attest to the artist's importance and the regard in which he was held by his contemporaries.
Self-portraits require the use of a mirror. In most of his self-portraits Mengs eliminates the direct gaze and takes the factor of reversal into consideration so that right and left appear as in life rather than as reflected. Here Mengs has incorporated the reversal into the conceit of the picture, implying by his raised left (actually right) arm the presence of the canvas on which he is painting. We see him as he saw his reflection; painting is presented as a mirror of nature. Mengs thereby underscores the truthfulness of his art.
[Keith Christiansen 2010]
The painting displays Mengs wonderful draftsmanship and an innate grasp of the surface quality of materials. The description of the broad forms of the painting coat and the crumpled edges of the sheaf of drawings, which push the artist's ring up and away from his finger, are a subtle tour de force. The modeling of the head is searching and insistent and employs a striking palette of bruised grays blended with peach and ivory tones to create a robustly modeled face. This striking portrait is in excellent condition.
The painting is on a moderately fine plain weave canvas which has been glue-paste lined to a canvas of similar weight and weave. It is stretched over a simple, keyed, four-member stretcher that is likely to date from the twentieth century and is probably contemporary with the lining. Slight cusping of the weave is evident on all four sides indicating that the picture has not been cropped. However, on the left-hand side the paint layer continues around the side, effectively becoming the tacking edge. Old tack holes, along with other evidence (see Paint layer), strongly suggest that this was an original change in the dimensions of the composition made by the artist himself.
The paint handling displays confidence and command and the subtle color palette has held up well. Apparently, Mengs initially planned for the composition to be wider on the left side. However, during the course of execution, he appears to have restretched the painting, possibly having removed it from a temporary strainer or loom. He created a narrower format by simply turning part of the left-hand side of the portrait into the tacking edge. It is important to note that although the paint layer continues, it has not been entirely completed and the section adjacent to the upholstered chair is still only underpainted and lacks the final modeling layers. In contrast, the other three sides show a clear demarcation along the turnover edge where the paint and ground end and the raw canvas begins. This rethinking of the format of the composition at an intermediary stage in its execution is important given the existence of other versions of the portrait which appear simply to copy the final dimensions.
[Extracted from the Condition and Treatment Report by Michael Gallagher, 2010]
private collection, Genoa (1985–2010; sold to Orsi); [Galleria Carlo Orsi, Milan, 2010; sold to MMA].
Steffi Roettgen. Anton Raphael Mengs, 1728–1779. Vol. 2, Leben und Wirken. Munich, 2003, pp. 618–20, no. NN 277 WK3, colorpl. LVII, identifies it as the primary version of the composition.
Francesco Petrucci. Pittura di Ritratto a Roma: il Settecento. Rome, 2010, vol. 3, pl. 936.
Francesca Romana Morelli and Melanie Gerlis. "Rome Antiques Fair Attracts Foreign Dealers." Art Newspaper 20 (November 2010), p. 82.
Xavier F. Salomon in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2010–2012." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Fall 2012), p. 42, ill. (color).
John Marciari. Italian, Spanish, and French Paintings Before 1850 in the San Diego Museum of Art. San Diego, 2015, pp. 298–99 n. 2.
Louis XVI period frame adapted for the picture in 2013
Artist: Anton Raphael Mengs (German, Ústi nad Labem (Aussig) 1728–1779 Rome)Date: mid-18th centuryMedium: Pen and brown ink, squared for transfer in black chalkAccession: 1970.113.5On view in:Not on view
Artist: Anton Raphael Mengs (German, Ústi nad Labem (Aussig) 1728–1779 Rome)Date: n.d.Medium: Black chalk, heightening with white, brown wash (?), on gray-brown paper.Accession: 1978.411.2On view in:Not on view