Anton Raphael Mengs
Biography of German Neoclassical Painter.

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Parnassus (1761) ceiling fresco
Villa Albani, Rome. (detail)

Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79)


Early Career & Artistic Training
Important Paintings By Mengs

The Penitent Mary Magdalene (1752)
Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden.

For details of the pigments
used by Anton Raphael Mengs
in his colour painting,
see: 18th Century Colour Palette.


One of the most famous Old Masters of the 18th century, Anton Raphael Mengs - known as "The German Raphael" - spent much of his artistic career living in Rome, although he was also active in Madrid and Saxony. While his early works reveal a Rococo influence, he is seen primarily as a founder of Neoclassical painting (although some critics argue that his works represent the dying flicker of Baroque painting). Enormously successful in his day, he became court painter to August III of Saxony and King Charles III of Madrid, gained numerous artistic honours, and was appointed head of both the Fine Arts Academy of St Luke in Rome and the San Fernando Academy in Madrid. Indeed, in his day he was regarded as Europe's greatest living painter, although his reputation has declined significantly. Primarily a portrait painter, his main influence was Renaissance master Raphael (1483-1520), but he also absorbed grace from Correggio (1489-1534) and colour from Titian (c.1488-1576). He also produced a wide range of religious art, including altarpieces, devotional items and large scale fresco paintings, the most famous being the ballroom ceiling fresco known as Parnassus at the Villa Albani in Rome (1761), and those in the Royal Palace of Madrid.

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Early Career & Artistic Training

Mengs was born in Bohemia, Germany (now in the Czech Republic). He spent his childhood in Dresden where his father - the Dresden miniaturist Ismael Mengs (1668-1764) - was court painter to the King of Poland, Friedrich August II (1696–1763) of Saxony. In 1741 Mengs travelled to Rome with his father, where he remained for most of his life. He received his earliest training in drawing and oil painting from his father, and in Rome studied Italian High Renaissance painting as well as the sculpture of antiquity. He progressed to working in the studio of Marco Benefial (1684-1764) who despite the general trend towards Baroque, retained the classical tradition of Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) and Raphael (1483–1520). Undoubtedly Benefial imbued Mengs with the same passion, as many of his early paintings are copies of Raphael. When Mengs returned to Saxony, word quickly spread about his talent and he was appointed court painter to King of Poland (Elector of Saxony), although his career remained international. He returned to Italy, but spent periods of time working for the Pope in Rome, as well as Charles III in Madrid. His style began to take on Baroque elements, in particular his portrait art which appealed to the growing aspiring new middle class. His portraits are colourful and atmospheric, created by the use of the new light and shading techniques tenebrism and chiaroscuro. His brushstroke is creamy, almost impasto in parts. Commissions for altarpiece art as well as portraits flowed in from all over Europe. His intimate compositions of the Spanish Royal family are considered to be his greatest portrait paintings.


During the late 18th century, a new European movement spread across the continent. Known as Neoclassical art, it was partly a reaction to the ostentation of Baroque art and part in response to the frivololity of the Rococo style. It was inspired by the spirit of Roman art and sculpture from ancient Greece, and stimulated by the discovery of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii (1738-50). While all this was happening, Mengs developed a close relationship with Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), a German art historian who published the highly influential book Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Art (1755). It was from Winckelmann's patron Cardinal Alessandro Albani that Mengs received the commission for his mural painting Parnassus (1761) at the Villa Albani (now the Villa Torlonia). He remained friends with Winckelmann until the latter's brutal murder in 1768. Although Mengs religious paintings retained a strong Baroque influence, Neoclassicism could be seen creeping into other works. He incorporated ancient sculptures into his larger scale works with stylistic elements reminiscent of Correggio (1489-1534), Titian (1488-1576) and Raphael.

Mengs painted towards the end of his life in Madrid, working on paintings, frescoes and altarpieces for the King of Spain. While there, he also trained his own pupils, including Agustin Esteve (1753-1830) who later became painter to the Crown. In 1777 Mengs returned to Rome, where he died 2 years later. He was survived by 20 children, several of whom were pensioned by the King of Spain. Although he died at the young age of 50, his paintings influenced a generation of neoclassical artists from Italy, Spain and France.



Decline in Reputation

It was the fashion for Neoclassicism which propelled Mengs to the top of his profession, and which led him to overshadow even such great artists as Tiepolo (1696-1770). (For more about his neoclassical influence on others, see: German Art, 19th Century.) Modern opinion now considers much of his work - except for his portraits which retain a certain freshness and intensity - to be dull and rather contrived, albeit technically competent and full of allusions to the art of classical antiquity and the High Renaissance.

Important Paintings By Mengs

Portraits and religious works by Mengs can be seen in the best art museums throughout the world. They include the following:

- Assumption of the Virgin (1751-66) Court Church, Dresden.
- The Penitent Mary Magdalene (1752) Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden.
- Portrait of Maria Luisa of Parma (1756) Prado.
- Portrait of Clement XIII Rezzonico (1758) Museo del Settecento, Venice.
- Portrait of Johann Winckelmann (1760) Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
- Parnassus fresco (1761) Villa Albani, Rome.
- Portrait of Charles III (1761) Prado, Madrid.
- The Adoration of the Shepherds (1770) Prado.
- Noli ne Tangere (1771) National Gallery, London.
- Portrait of Johann Joahim Winkelmann (1775) Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
- The Immaculate Conception (1770-79) Louvre, Paris.
- Self-Portrait (1779) Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.

• For more biographical details about German Old Masters, see: Homepage.
• For an evaluation of important portraits and religious pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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