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.