Mengs, Anton Raphael

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Mengs, Anton Raphael (1728-79): German Painter

Anton Mengs was born in Aussig in Bohemia. His father, a Danish artist, gave Mengs his first professional training in drawing. The young Mengs worked diligently on perfecting the art of drawing and also became a highly skilled draftsman. Father and son moved to Rome in 1741, where the younger Mengs continued his lessons in drawing and studied the antique art and architecture of the city. As part of his training, Mengs copied Raphael’s mural decorations in the papal apartments of the Vatican.

In 1746, Mengs was appointed court painter to King Augustus III of Poland in Dresden, and subsequently produced his first portrait that was to launch his success as an artist. After a brief period of travel in Italy, Mengs returned to Dresden, where he painted portraits of court officials and their family members in the Baroque style. During this time, he also produced portraits of people in the various arts. In this latter group of portraits, Mengs abandons much of the solemnity and formality of the Baroque style and endows his subjects with more characterization. Culminating in his self-portrait, Mengs’ portraits from this period are credited with the artist’s mastery of the pastel technique.

In 1752 Mengs traveled once again to Rome, where he completed “The Ascension of the Virgin.” This painting comprises the central panel of the altarpiece that he was commissioned to produce for the court church in Dresden. This trip to Rome was to become a turning point for his artistic pursuits. Excavations at the site of Herculaneum and Pompeii had unearthed cultural artifacts that inspired and attracted artists and art lovers from around the world.

Mengs found great merit in the works of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who had participated in the excavations and advocated the aesthetic ideals of antiquity in a series of works that included his Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (Art History of the Antique, 1764). Mengs further promoted these ideals in a series of creative essays, in which he upheld Raphael and other artists of classical antiquity as infallible authorities. In his treatise, Gedanken über die Schönheit und den Geschmack in der Malerei (Considerations on Beauty and Taste in Painting, 1762), he established his newly adopted ideals, such as symmetry of composition, mathematically proportioned representations of the human figure, and perfect linear design. He borrowed heavily from artists such as Raphael, as in the example of his “Parnassus.” Because they were in line with the existing academic doctrine, Mengs’ aesthetic principles were widely accepted by the art academies. In these academies, however, Mengs’ principles descended into dogmas. Due to these circumstances and to the emergence of Romanticism, Mengs’ influence and popularity faded by the 1780s.

Anton Mengs died on June 29, 1779, while working on an altarpiece, “The Annunciation,” which -- among others of his work -- was acquired by Catharine II of Russia. This empress actively pursued the acquisition of works by Mengs as part of an effort to establish Russia as an enlightened European monarchy. During the nineteenth century, however, the popularity of Mengs’ works faded in Russia as it had in Europe.

Further Reading:

Nikolai Nikulin, Anton Raphael Mengs, 1984.

Sarah Tusa

Lamar University