Anton Raphael Mengs, born in 1728 in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, was a contemporary of Bellotto and of the Tiepolo family. A prodigy and precocious genius, he managed to surpass them all in fame (and remuneration) in the courts of Europe, creating a taste for neo-Classicism among his royal patrons. By the 1760s, Mengs had eclipsed Bellotto's vistas and landscapes at the court of Dresden and the work of Giambattista Tiepolo at the Royal Palace in Madrid.
Mengs' rise to fame was rapid and his style early to mature. He was helped in this by his association, during his many visits to Rome, with Johann Joachim Winckelmann who introduced him to the current enthusiasm for, and rediscovery of, the values of antiquity. Mengs scored success after success with the reigning monarchs of his day. His work heralded a new era, and presided also over its decline, exercising an influence throughout the whole of Europe for more than a century.
The chance to see a comprehensive display of his work in the exhibition “Mengs: the discovery of the neo-Classical” at Palazzo Zabarella (until 11 June) is therefore not to be missed. More than 120 pieces by the artist have been gathered under one roof, from 60 museums and collections in 18 countries. This exhibition, curated by Steffi Roetggen, is the first of its size in Italy; it sets out to give a comprehensive view of Mengs' output, from his drawings based on classical nudes to the religious paintings (such as the “Way of the Cross” from Madrid) which achieve their dramatic impact by the skilled use of contrasts of light and shadow. There are classical figures too, for example the “Sybil” from London and “St Cecilia” from Rome, in which perfection of form, the balance of colours and the delicacy of the skin tones are accompanied by a modern sense of melancholy, the same sentiment that pervades the “Self-portrait” from Genoa.
Mengs was exceptionally skilled as a portrait painter and this gift accounted in large part for his success. Portrait masterpieces in this exhibition include the portrait of the Prince Elector Friedrich Christian of Saxony and the splendid representation of the Princess Elector, Marie Antoinette of Bavaria.
The artist's engravings give an idea of his activity as a mural painter, the “Parnassus” on the ceiling of the gallery in Villa Albania in Rome, completed in 1761, providing a virtual manifesto of his ideas.
After his death in 1779, Mengs' reputation took an immediate nose-dive from which it never fully recovered. Portrayed at first as an unimaginative eclectic, he was then treated as a colourless second-rater. This exhibition, which travels to Dresden where Mengs received his training, may give us some sense of why he was so famous in his own life time: the “Mozart of painting”, the “Painter to princes” or, as Winckelmann described him, “the greatest artist of his day, reborn like the phoenix from the ashes of the first Raphael to teach the world the beauty of art”.
“Mengs: the discovery of the neo-Classical” (until 11 June), Palazzo Zabarella, via San Francesco 27, Padua, Tel: +39 049 8756063, fax +39 049 8752959 e-mail: email@example.com Touring to Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Royal Castle, Dresden, (23 June-3 September)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The scorned neo-Classicism of Anton Raphael Mengs is up for reconsideration in this comprehensive show'