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Anton Raphael Mengs in Spanish Literature

John H. R. Polt

University of California, Emeritus

The Prado Museum Commemorated the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Anton Raphael Mengs with a special exhibition in 1929, and the bicentennial of his death with another exhibition in 1980; but not long ago his paintings hung only in a smallish room on its third floor, not infrequently closed. Mengs's name is hardly a household word today. In his time, however, he was considered a major painter, and he was revered in the Enlightened Spain of Charles III. My purpose here, after clearing up two persistent misconceptions, is to trace his impression on Spanish letters.

Most Spanish scholars call Mengs a Bohemian painter; and he was, in fact, born on March 12, 1728 in Aussig an der Elbe (in Czech, Ústí nad Labem), while his parents, according to one of his first biographers, were vacationing in that «piccola e malinconica città della Boemia» (Bianconi 145). Ismael Mengs, Anton's father, lived in Dresden with a housekeeper, Charlotte Bormann, who was pregnant with their third child. Since Ismael was already known for his nonchalance in religious matters, he may have feared that news of his illegitimate family might prejudice his standing as Saxon court painter, and he took great pains to keep its existence a secret. As the time for Anton's birth drew near, he took Charlotte to the nearest non-Saxon town, Aussig, bringing her and the child back to Dresden a few weeks later, just as he had done on his 1725 «vacation», which had produced his daughter Theresia Concordia. Anton never saw his birthplace again. Ismael eventually married Charlotte, who died not long after the birth of their fourth child (Allgemeines Lexikon, s. v. Mengs, Theresia Concordia; Pelzel 11-12, 272n33; Woermann 14).

By birth, then, Mengs was indeed a Bohemian painter-just as Boccaccio was a French writer, having been born in Paris. In his time, however, he was widely and not unreasonably believed to have been born in Dresden (Pelzel 10-11). Long residence in Rome and marriage to a Roman had their effect: Mengs's correspondence, even with the Austrian Anton Maron, is in Italian, and he spoke Italian to his friend (and fellow-German) Johann Joachim Winckelmann (Voss 652). Yet he considered himself a Saxon and signed his paintings «Ant. Raphael Mengs Saxo» (see his portrait of Ferdinand IV of Naples, Sánchez Cantón 12 and plate VIII, and his Parnassus).

The other murky aspect of Mengs's life is his supposed Jewish origin. The Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler calls his father «Ismael Israel Mengs»; and says that Ismael's parents were of Jewish descent. Sánchez Cantón makes Ismael an observant Jew (3), and Águeda Villar calls him a «pintor judío» (Catalogue 78). A more recent scholar extends the Jewishness to Charlotte, with Ismael converting to Protestantism (Grafinger 31). Some authors go farther still: according to The Jewish Encyclopedia and Sánchez Cantón (37), Anton Raphael abjured Judaism in order to marry a Catholic. A Spanish book dealer advertised Mengs's Obras as the work of «uno de los escasos judíos admitidos oficialmente en la corte de España». This supposed lack of «limpieza de sangre» affected Mengs's status long after his death: when German forces, thanks to the Munich Agreement, occupied Aussig in 1938, they changed all politically incorrect street names, and the Mengsgasse, insufficiently «Aryan», became the Conrad-von-Hötzendorf-Strasse (Umlauft 679-80, 784). This name lasted only until 1945; but by then the old name had became politically incorrect for being German, and the street was named after Prokop Diviß, a Czech scientist and musician of the eighteenth century, but no native of Aussig.1

Ismael Mengs was born in Copenhagen, of German or Dutch parentage; the name Israel does not appear in early literature or in Ismael's signature and is probably a confusion with Ismael (Pelzel 267-69). Neither Woermann nor Justi says anything about Jewish descent; Pelzel finds no evidence for it and states that Ismael «was raised as a Protestant and officially regarded himself as such» (9). In his house he had a German Bible, and when he took his family to study in Rome he registered them as Lutherans; but he seems really to have practiced no religion and was never seen in church (Bianconi 144, 149; Woermann 13; Pelzel 268-69nn6-7). Being a crypto-Jew might have made him indifferent toward outward manifestations of Christianity, but it might also nave made him eager to prove himself a good Christian in an age when Jewishness was hardly a social asset. Ismael's behavior therefore proves nothing. According to Bianconi, the Mengs children had no idea what their religion was, «perchè il padre non fece mai loro l'onore di dirglielo, e molto meno di condurli in Chiesa» (146). At the age of twenty-one Anton Raphael converted from his nominal Lutheranism to Catholicism, prior to his marriage in Rome to Margarita Guazzi (Woermann 87) -unnecessarily, it would seem, since upon his birth in Aussig, where there were no Protestants at the time, he had been baptized in the Roman Catholic faith (Umlauft 192, 329, 784).

His father named Anton Raphael after Antonio Allegri (Correggio) and Raffaele d'Urbino and with single-minded, even maniacal, rigor prepared him to rival these great predecessors. After Augustus III of Saxony discovered the young man's talent, he made him a court painter at the unprecedented age of seventeen, and his chief court painter at twenty-there (Woermann 84, 168). With the permission of his patron Anton Raphael then returned to Rome for further study and work; and from there Augustus sent him to Naples to portray his daughter, Queen María Amalia, and her family. King Charles of Naples had patronized the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, and he prided himself on his collection of antiquities (Pelzel 128); and Mengs's devotion to ancient art, stimulated by his friendship with Winckelmann, may have helped to recommend him to the King. At any rate, the royal couple were so pleased with Mengs that when, in 1759, Charles succeeded to the throne of Spain as Charles III, they decided to take him to Madrid as court painter, providing him with housing, a carriage, horses, servants, artistic supplies, and a substantial salary (Azara XII-XIV; Woermann 175). His commitments in Rome delayed his move to Madrid until 1761. He would reside in Spain from then until 1769, and again from 1774 until 1776.

When Mengs came to Spain in 1761, he set a new direction in the development of Spanish painting, which had declined from its splendid tradition, with most Spanish artists knowing little of artistic currents abroad (Sánchez Cantón LV; Águeda, «El ideal...» 31, «Mengs...» 446). Mengs considered painting an imitation of nature, capable of surpassing nature in some respects (Mengs, Obras 11). This imitation, however, is not to be slavish copying, but an «ideal» imitation, «that is, it must imitate those parts of natural objects that convey to us the unique essence of the thing we perceive» (203, translation mine). Art is thus for Mengs a way to knowledge, through analysis and subsequent reconstitution. Its most important part is intellectual, not physical:

Me parece indubitable que la parte más noble de la pintura no es la que solamente deleita la vista y hace que las obras gusten a hombres del todo ignorantes del arte, sino que aquellas partes son las más apreciables que satisfacen el entendimiento y contentan a los que hacen uso de las potencias del alma.


«Invention», one of its essential parts, ennobles the art of painting; it is «la verdadera poesía del cuadro formada ya en la mente del pintor, el cual representa después el caso como si le hubiese visto» (234). Painting, for Mengs, is a noble or liberal art, because it requires study, a superior intellect, and a noble spirit, besides being a means for the acquisition of honor and nobility (202). A painter, in other works, is not a "mere" artisan. Mengs grew angry when Giacomo Casanova argued that since he could chat while painting, he worked with his hands more than with his soul (Casanova 3: 628).

Mengs looked for inspiration to the ancients, believing that the Greeks had achieved excellence through a «philosophical» approach to nature and that the moderns could match and surpass them (Obras 215, 228; Pelzel 117, 119). Apart from the Greeks, Mengs's ideals were the Italian painters of the Renaissance, especially Correggio and Raphael. Gothic and Moorish styles, as well as the opulence of Baroque sculpture, he considered manifestations of poor taste (Obras 185, 188).

Modern critics hold different views of Mengs's aesthetic theories (see, e.g., Voss 652; Pelzel 167; v. Einem, ed. of Mengs, Briefe 18-21; Águeda, Catalogue 15), but in his time he was esteemed as a theorist and historian of art as well as for his skill with the brush. In 1762 he published his Gedanken über die Schönheit und den Geschmack in der Malerei; other writings, along with a translation of the Gedanken, were published posthumously by his friend and biographer José Nicolás de Azara. According to Atara, Mengs was born «to restore the arts»; he «was a philosopher and painted for philosophers», and his art tells us more about the «movements of the soul» than could «the greatest philosopher since Socrates» (Atara II, XVI, XXV; cf. Voss 654). Azara compares Mengs to Apelles, the great Greek painter of Antiquity (XXXI); and upon Mengs's death, he had his bust placed in the Roman Pantheon next to that of Raphael, with an inscription proclaiming him «pintor philosophus» (Azara XXXIII-XXXIV). Mengs's student Heinrich Füger called him «ein durch die Wissenschaft gebildeter Künstler, der mit philosophischem Scharfsinn die Kunst ausübt» (Pelzel 179). The Spanish art historian Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez saw in Mengs the «pintor filósofo... que ilustró el reino con su enseñanza, y adornó el palacio real con sus obras inmortales» (1: LX). Mengs, he writes, began each work with «la más filosófica y detenida meditación»; he was the greatest modern painter in Europe and the restorer of art, and his writings the best treatise on painting in any language (3: 126-28).

Five years after his arrival in the Spanish capital, Mengs was named first court painter (Honisch 63). As such, besides painting, he advised the King about the royal art collections, judged the work of contemporary Spanish painters, and assisted in the direction of such royal factories as the tapestry works in Madrid. Well before the creation of the Prado Museum, he recommended establishment of a public art gallery in the Buen Retiro Palace with part of the royal collections (Luna 321, 329-34). In the tapestry works, Mengs, in spite of his love of Antiquity, introduced Spanish popular scenes painted by native artists (Sánchez Cantón XXXIX-XL). According to Ceán, all the ambitious painters in Madrid came to Mengs, «in whom they found a teacher and protector who guided them along the right path and obtained commissions and promotions for those he considered worthy». Among these proteges were Francisco Bayeu, Mariano Maella, Gregorio Ferro, Francisco Ramos, and Francisco Agustín (3: 129). Bayeu was brought from Saragossa in 1762 to assist Mengs, who obtained for him a post in the academy of art, the Real Academia de San Fernando, as well as employment on the frescoes of the royal palace (Sánchez Cantón XIX, XXVIII; Águeda, «Mengs...» 450). Mengs was also on good terms with Manuel Salvador Carmona, one of Spain's leading engravers, who engraved some of his work and shortly before the painter's death married his daughter, Anna María Theresia (Águeda, Catalogue 22).

Bayeu's brother-in-law, Francisco Goya, may have met Mengs in Rome in 1771, introduced by his fellow-Aragonese, Azara (Águeda, «El ideal...» 31; cf. Gassier-Wilson 36). At any rate, in 1774 Mengs, influenced by Bayeu, called Goya to Madrid to paint cartoons for the tapestry works, a task that he executed under Mengs's direction (Gassier-Wilson 41-42; Goya 152). Two years later Mengs praised Goya's abilities and recommended him for commissions and a regular salary (Gassier-Wilson 46). Goya was an independent spirit but a talented assimilator. Whether by the pressure of the circumstances or by choice, he reflects the influence of Mengs in his early portraits and in his religious paintings; and in 1778 he undertook to make etchings of paintings by Velázquez that Mengs had praised in comments published only two years earlier (Águeda, «El ideal...» 36-37; Gassier-Wilson 48-50). Upon Mengs's death, Goya, pointing out that Mengs had brought him into the royal service, applied for the vacant post of court painter; but the choice fell on a more experienced Mengs protege, Maella (Gassier-Wilson 58).

King Charles was pleased with Mengs and treated him with every consideration. He provided him with a house and allowed him free access to the royal presence (Casanova 3: 577). He carried some of Mengs's paintings with him as the court moved from one royal residence to another (Bianconi 188). After paying him a generous salary and fringe benefits, he allowed Mengs to retire on half pay, retaining his title as Primer Pintor de Cámara, with no obligations beyond advising young Spanish painters in Rome. In addition, the King granted pensions to Mengs's five daughters and promised his protection to his two sons (Bianconi 202, Woermann 290). When Mengs's writings were published in Spain, they were printed by the Imprenta Real.

As the King's painter, Mengs not unreasonably expected to play an important part in the Academia de San Fernando; on the other hand, some of the members were not keen on being lectured by a foreigner who thought he knew better how things should be done. Apart from matters of pride, there were two major points of contention. Mengs believed that the Academy should be primarily a school of and for artists, yet it also contained highly placed laymen who saw it as a tool in the government's program of enlightenment and development. These members dominated the Academy, when in Mengs's view they should have had no voice in its affairs. In addition, Mengs believed that the training of artists should include theoretical work, especially lessons in perspective and human anatomy. He succeeded in instituting such instruction, but it was resented and not always effective (Sánchez Cantón XXVI-XXXV; Águeda, «Mengs...», esp. 448-49; Úbeda, esp. 449-53, 460). In spite of there disputes, however, the Academy declared Mengs to be «el primer pintor de Europa» (Sánchez Cantón XXIX) and, as we shall see, repeatedly memorialized him after his death.

In spite of the favorable conditions of his employment, the good will of the King, his fruitful relations with some Spanish artists, his growing appreciation of Spanish art (especially of Velázquez; see Obras 221-22), and his high reputation, Mengs was not happy in Spain. His family was not comfortable in Madrid (Woermann 210), and much of the time he spent there he was alone. His work habits, according to Bianconi and Azara, were very demanding; and fresco painting damaged his health (Bianconi 198 et passim). Complaints about health and low spirits are frequent in the letters Mengs addressed to his students in Rome, as in this passage written in 1768:

... le assicuro come avanti Dio che tutto vede, che mai nel mondo ho visuto piu humigliato e piu aflitto, io sono costretto di spendere tutto in questo paese e vivo privo dogni sorte di piaceri... le fatiche sempre aumentano, l'arte sempre piu mi pare sfugirme da mani, il desiderio di far megli [sic] mi leva la consolazione delle mie fatiche, le mie forze deteriorano quasi giornalmente[,] la gioventu mia passa, senza che io possi meritare fra un Popolo di enemici... per tutto questo e per altri affanni ho perduto ogni allegria, nè la vita e piu desiderabile per me.

(Briefe 53, orthography as printed)                

Two weeks later, Mengs declares, «io non posso niente in questo paese, e meno nel Academia» (54; cf. 42, 73, 75). In 1774 his friend Pietro Paolo Giusti, who served in the Imperial embassy in Spain, reported that Mengs was «besonderlich abgeneigt» against Spain, mainly because he felt slighted in the distribution of honors from the court (Berichte... 6: 390, 12: 66, 13: 127). For Mengs, Rome was home and the artistic center of the universe. «Unhappy virtually from the day of his arrival [in Spain], he grew increasingly discontent and melancholic as the years passed» (Pelzel 128, 147). But how much happier would he have been elsewhere? Even his admiring early biographers speak of his timidity, his gloomy nature, and his quick temper (Azara XLII, VIII; Bianconi 222).

Still, Mengs made important friends in Spain. The Spaniard closest to him was Azara, a diplomat and man of letters who was also a friend of Bernardo and Domingo de Iriarte (Corona 74), active figures in Spanish political and cultural life. It may be through Azara that Mengs came to know them and their brother, the poet Tomás; Mengs gave a self-portrait to Bernardo de Iriarte (Azara LII). Tomás de Iriarte's friend, the playwright and poet Nicolás Fernández de Moratín, planned to send his son, the more famous Leandro, to Rome to study art with Mengs (Andioc 54n93), a plan never carried out. Mengs painted and enjoyed the friendship of Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes, a powerful political figure of the Enlightenment (Azara LI); in 1768 he dined with Campomanes and with Pablo de Olavide, the reformist governor of Seville (Casanova 3: 615-16). Campomanes subsequently cited Mengs's contribution to improving and propagating instruction in drawing, and predicted that his paintings would rival the best of Raphael (Campomanes 110 and n14). In 1776 Campomanes was asked by Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a fellow-Asturian serving as a magistrate in Seville under Olavide, to place Jovellanos' associate and protege Ceán Bermúdez, the future historian of art, as a student of Mengs, so that he might profit from the teaching of «that famous artist from whom Spain expects the restoration of good taste in painting» (Jovellanos, Obras completas 2: 42, 44). This request was granted (Ceán 3: 127); but the relationship was brief, since Mengs left Spain about four months after the date of Jovellanos' letter. In the company of other distinguished figures, Mengs was a regular guest in the house of the celebrated architect Ventura Rodríguez (Jovellanos, Obras publicadas... 1: 375a). Another friend was Antonio Ponz, learned author of a Viaje de España which describes Spain's artistic treasures and in which Mengs's appreciation of Spanish art was printed in 1776. Ponz's volumes not only list and describe the works of Mengs; they repeatedly cite Mengs's judgments on other painters, recognize his authority as a theorist (670), and proclaim Ponz's friendship with the painter (125, 976, 1235).

These connections, his artistic reputation, and the favor of the King all contributed to the impression that Mengs left on Spanish letters of the late eighteenth century. Already in 1763, not long after the painter's arrival in Spain, the Marqués de Santa Cruz declared that in the decoration of the new royal palace «los profesores [i. e., artists] que Europa venera por sus maestros dejarán vinculada en los más singulares esfuerzos del arte la recomendación de los adelantamientos de nuestro siglo, la enseñanza y admiración de los venideros» (Distribución 1763 66). One of these master artists, though not named here, was Mengs.

In 1775 the poet Tomás de Iriarte composed a Latin inscription «for Mengs's self-portrait»:

Antonius Raphael Mengs,
optimus pictor, se ipso pictore dignus,
quo penicillo
sui nominis comparavit aeternitatem,
sui etiam oris imaginem aeternavit.

(Iriarte 7: 414)                

[Anton Raphael Mengs, greatest of painters, worthy of being painted by himself, immortalized his face with the same brush with which he gained the immortality of his fame].

The same thought appears in Iriarte's Epístola VII, dated January 8, 1776, during Mengs's last year in Spain, in which we read:

Es de mi sala el principal ornato
del sabio Mengs el célebre retrato;
inestimable don de este grande hombre,
que con aquel pincel tan arrogante
con que en Europa eternizó su nombre,
también ha eternizado su semblante,
y al paso que a sí mismo se ha igualado
en su copia, a sí mismo se ha excedido.

(Poetas líricos: 2: 33a)                

This self-portrait, Iriarte goes on to say, hangs amidst paintings by Vandyck, Murillo, Velázquez, Cano, Da Vinci, Titian, El Greco, and Bosch -a distinguished company.

Iriarte's Epístola IX, dated May 20, 1776, speaks of his these best friends: one is dead, he says; another, far away;

mas otro vivo y presente
la suerte me ha concedido.
Mengs, el célebre sajón,
con su amistad me envanece;
yo en la mía le distingo.
Y no preguntes la causa,
si de aquel pincel divino
viste alguna vez tan sólo
un leve rasgo, un descuido.
De mi justa inclinación
no es el único incentivo
saber que Europa le ofrece
aplausos tan merecidos.
El móvil de mi afición
es el deleite, el hechizo
con que sus obras me pagan
lo mucho que las admiro.
Su imaginación fecunda,
su diseño corregido,
sus tintas inimitables,
su carácter expresivo;
el conciliarse, obedientes
a su delicado tino,
con el juicio y la verdad,
la novedad y el capricho;
aquel transformarse en bulto
lo que sólo es colorido,
lucir la naturaleza,
eclipsarse el artificio,
todo tiene en sí un oculto
e inexplicable atractivo,
tiene un no sé qué de encanto,
de misterio o de prodigio.
Logra, en suma, reunir
su gusto sólido y fino
lo mejor de lo moderno
a todo lo bueno antiguo.
Si Hayden conociera a Mengs,
pronto se hicieran amigos,
y Horacio lo fuera de ambos
más que los tres lo son míos.
Pintor, músico y poeta
observan en sus estilos
la misma buena elección,
el primor y arreglo mismo.

(Poetas líricos 2: 33a)                

Mengs here represents classical taste in his art, as Haydn and Horace do in theirs. Note, incidentally, that Iriarte calls him a Saxon.

The friendship with Mengs may have left yet another trace in the work of Iriarte. In a letter published in 1780, the painter writes:

Algunos están en el error de que la sola práctica vale más que todas las reglas, y que sin ellas ha habido grandes artífices. Esto es falsísimo, como podría demostrarlo si hubiese necesidad de ello. Sin razón y sin reglas será casualidad hacer algo bueno; no siendo posible llegar a un fin determinado sin guía segura que nos conduzca a él.

(Obras 392, emphasis added)                

The idea is hardly original; but is it only coincidence that idea and wording should reappear two years later in Iriarte's most famous fable, El burro flautista, whose moral is «Sin reglas del arte, el que en algo acierta, acierta por casualidad?» Iriarte takes his outline from Florian's L'Âne et la flute (Fables, Book V, Fable V; Navarro González 15n), but Florian does not apply the story to the arts or formulate its moral in words similar to Iriarte's.

Admiration for Mengs appears repeatedly in the works of Jovellanos, the greatest representative of the Enlightenment in the Spain of the second half of the eighteenth century, a refined conoisseur of art, friend and patron of Goya, and a friend of Mengs's friends, though there is no indication of his having met the painter. In 1781, during the ceremonies accompanying the distribution of prizes by the Academia de San Fernando, Jovellanos read an Elogio de las bellas artes, in which he traces the development of Spanish painting and, coming to the reign of Charles III, devotes the following encomiastic paragraphs to Mengs, who had died in Rome two years earlier:

... y cuando quisiera tratar de aquellos [artistas] cuya fama ha fijado ya la muerte, veo la sombra de un profesor gigante, que descuella entre los demás y los ofusca: la sombra de Mengs, del hijo de Apolo y de Minerva, del pintor filósofo, del maestro, el bienhechor y el legislador de las artes.

Sí, señores; nosotros debemos a Mengs estos honrosos títulos; y cuando yo los atribuyo a su memoria, creo que mi boca es sólo un órgano destinado a hacer la expresión de nuestros comunes sentimientos. Mas no penséis que Mengs ha muerto para nuestra academia ni para España. Su nombre vive y vivirá en la más distante posteridad. Vivirá en sus discípulos, esperanza de nuestras artes; vivirá en el célebre museo que adorna estas moradas, vivirá en sus divinas obras, vivirá en sus profundos escritos, tesoro de inestimable doctrina, que se puede llamar el catecismo del buen gusto y el código de los profesores y amantes de las artes...

(Obras publicadas 1: 360a)                

Mengs, «the son of Apollo and of Minerva», is prized both for his art and for his learning, both as a model and as a guide. The museum to which Jovellanos refers is probably the huge collection of plaster casts of ancient statuary that Mengs had left the academy on his departure from Spain. The notes to the Elogio cite the authority of Mengs's writings (Obras publicadas 1: 361n10, 363n53).

Mengs was, for Jovellanos, «el primer pintor de la tierra» (Obras publicadas 1: 375a). In 1789 he adduces the authority of «el sabio Mengs» to demonstrate the excellence of Velázquez's art and the importante of his Las meninas (Obras en prosa 195, 200). In his correspondence with the painter Fray Manuel Bayeu (brother of Francisco), Jovellanos three times cites the example of Mengs, and specifically of «el sabio Mengs, en el sublime cuadro del Descendimiento» (Obras completas 5: 509, 520, 521; cf. Arteaga 90, quoted above). A unique sublimity of style is also the quality Jovellanos identifies with Mengs in a letter to Tomás de Verí (Obras completas 4: 286). These appreciations of Mengs appear not in a public forum, where praise for the painter might be flattery of his royal patron, but in the frank intimacy of private correspondence.

Mengs also appears in Jovellanos' diary. Recording a conversation about painting, and recalling the Annunciation that Mengs was completing when he died, Jovellanos notes: «Talento de Mengs: sus obras. Descripción de la última» (Obras completas 6: 624). Ever alert to artistic treasures on his travels, in 1795 he gives an enthusiastic account of another «un estupendo cuadro de la Anunciación», which he attributes to Mengs, in a church in Castrogeriz (Diarios 2: 95-96, 149). He seems to have owned a Mengs sketch of the musician Saxier (Obras completas 5: 482); and while imprisoned on Majorca in 1805, he took solace from a Mengs painting hung in his cell (Obras completas 4: 173). A volume of Mengs's drawings of heads by Raphael was prescribed as a model for the drawing classes of the Real Instituto Asturiano thal Jovellanos founded in Gijón (Obras publicadas 2: 411a).

Antonio Ponz, friend of Jovellanos and of Mengs, recalls the painter in the fourteenth volume of his Viaje de España, published in 1788, after Mengs's death, and explains that unlike most of his contemporaries, Mengs had excelled in all three noble arts, painting, sculpture, and architecture, to whose study he had sacrificed his health and his life, equaling the greatest artists of the Renaissance in his dedication and knowledge (1238).

I have seen no indication that Esteban de Arteaga, Spain's leading aesthetic theorist of the late eighteenth century, knew Mengs; but after the painter's death Arteaga became an intimate friend of Azara (Batllori, ed. of Arteaga XXIV-XXV). In his Investigaciones filosóficas sobre la belleza ideal (1789), he recommends Mengs's account of Spanish painting published by Ponz (91) and mentions Mengs with the likes of Plato and Diderot as an authority on aesthetics (34), crediting him with giving new currency to the term «ideal» as applied to art. His own discussion of the topic, he states, will only be a commentary on and clarification of the thought of Mengs (72). He cites Mengs's paintings in the company of Raphael's (80) and finds his Descent from the Cross «a sublime example of the most perfect ideal [art]» (90). Comparing a Virgin by Murillo and Mengs's painting of The Soul, Arteaga claims that he cannot judge the relative merit of the two painters, but that

en la primera me parece que tengo delante de los ojos una serrana hermosa, pero en la segunda percibo un deleite de otra clase, un deleite que me hace olvidar todo lo que hasta ahora he visto en punto de hermosuras femeniles, y que me renueva la sensación que varias veces me han ocasionado la lectura de Platón, la de algunos sonetos sublimes de Petrarca y las sinfonías de Tartini ejecutadas por Nardini.


In spite of Mengs's quarrels with the Academia de San Fernando, the Academy repeatedly commemorated him during its triennial distribution of prizes, occasions on which some of the lay academicians would read speeches or poems. For the first such celebration after the painter's death, the published «Resumen de las actas de la Academia» devotes four pages to Mengs, sketching his career and calling him the most skilled artist of the age (Distribución 1781 4-7). Jovellanos presented his Elogio de las bellas artes; and Francisco Gregorio de Salas, a modest but popular poet, read his Copia poética del último cuadro que pintó don Antonio Rafael Mengs y representa la Anunciación de Nuestra Señora, el cual se halla actualmente en el dormitorio del Rey nuestro Señor (Distribución 1781 113-20), a composition of 244 verses beginning as follows:

Copio del sabio Mengs el bello cuadro
que con diestro pincel y justa idea
en los umbrales de la triste parca
ofreció, imitador del blanco cisne,
por grata ofrenda del postrer aliento
a los pies del ibero regio trono
del tercer Carlos, su mayor Mecenas...

Mengs died while working on this painting and wished in it to reproduce the effect of a sonata by Corelli (Azara XXVII-XXXI). Salas similarly aims to recreate the painting in another artistic medium, though in effect he necessarily describes Mengs's work, while also interpreting and at times amplifying it, adding material of his own (Urrutia, esp. 503). He concludes:

Esta es la copia de la insigne obra
que de una vez tan sola representa
todo cuanto la larga y sucesiva
narración de mis versos se dilata
para hacer entender el noble asunto,
misterioso sentido y sacra empresa
que en ella con tal gracia se contiene,
ventaja concedida a la pintura
y en que el pincel excede al dulce plectro.
Este, vuelvo a decir, es el famoso,
grande y último cuadro celebrado
del ya difunto Mengs, a quien alaban
mejor sus obras que mi tosca pluma.

Six years after this celebration, the featured speaker, Pedro Luján de Silva y Góngora, Duke of Almodóvar, an aristocratic man of letters best known for his translation of Raynal's history of the conquest of the Americas, referred to the «superior talento y singularísimo mérito del inmortal Mengs..., el mayor pintor de Europa», and to his «ingenio filosófico» (Distribución 1787 62-64). Juan Meléndez Valdés, a friend of Jovellanos and the great est Spanish poet of the eighteenth century, then read an ode, El deseo de gloria en los profesores de las artes, in which Mengs appears burning with the flame of ambition:

y tú, Mengs sobrehumano,
tú, malogrado Mengs, en ella ardiendo,
los pinceles no sueltas de la mano:
ve tus divinas tablas envidiosa
Natura, y tu alma grande aún no reposa.
Pero, ¡oh memoria aciaga!,
él muere, y en su tumba el genio helado
de la pintura yace. La hechicera
gracia, la ideal belleza, la ingeniosa
composición, la hermosa
verdad del colorido, la ligera
expresión, el dibujo delicado...
¡Ah! ¿dónde triste mi memoria vaga?
Deja que satisfaga,
noble academia, a mi dolor; de flores
sembrad la losa fría: estos honores
son al pintor filósofo debidos,
al émulo de Apeles.
Y tú, insigne Carmona, repetidos
en el cobre nos da de sus pinceles
los milagros; que ¡oh cuánta, oh, cuánta gloria
guarda el tiempo a la suya y tu memoria!

(Meléndez 2: 909; Distribución 1787 86-87)                

Mengs is not only «superhuman», the «rival of Apeles»; the «pintor filósofo»; he is identified with the very spirit («genio») of painting. As in Iriarte's verses, his work is praised in technical terms of analysis. The last four verses refer to the engravings of Mengs's paintings prepared by his son-in-law.

The public of 1787 could next hear Ignacio Núñez Gaona's Canto a la imaginación, a la gloria y al amor de las artes, whose verses place Mengs in the company of Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez (Distribución 1787 102-03).

Outside the precincts of the Academy, also in 1787, the tireless literary and cultural polemicist Juan Pablo Forner recalls Mengs as a «nombre respetable» that has been defiled by being mentioned by El Apologista Universal (Forner xx); that periodical, the year before, had grouped «el célebre Mengs» with Titian, Maella, and Bayeu in an attack en Forner (15: 272-76).

Three years later, in 1790, the featured orator in the Academy was the naval officer, man of letters, and friend of Jovellanos, José de Vargas y Ponce, who praised the art of engraving for providing portraits of Spain's greatest man. Vargas names kings, heroes, writers, and a single painter, Mengs, whose self-portrait had been engraved by Carmona (Distribución 1790 71). Vargas was followed by Manuel José Quintana, an eighteen-year old disciple of Meléndez who was to become poet laureate of Spain and who had already participated, at the age of fifteen, in the ceremonies of 1787. Quintana was only four years old when Mengs left Spain for the last time and so could hardly have known him; yet in 1790, eleven years after Mengs's death, Mengs and Raphael are the only artists mentioned in the more than two hundred verses of an Epístola in which Quintana encourages a painter as follows:

Ya Mengs y Rafael te precedieron
en la carrera de tan noble empresa.
Imítalos, Valerio: ellos pintaron
con dignidad la Religión divina,
y en su augusta nobleza la mostraron.
De pasmo al orbe atónito llenaron
con su sublimidad y expresión viva.
Y la mano del tiempo que derriba
los mármoles y torres más enormes,
jamás removerá de sus asientos
aquel altar que la brillante gloria
a su estudio ha elevado y sus talentos.

The conclusion of the poem again evokes the same glorious pair:

Ánimo, pues, Valerio: insta y apura
los secretos del Arte en tus tareas;
que el genio y la razón siempre te guíen.
Así te igualarás a los varones
que ya te han precedido; así se sube
de la áurea eternidad a las mansiones,
do el grande Rafael y Mengs divino
tienen su asiento en esplendor contino.

(Quintana 94, 98; Distribución 1790 86, 92)                

Mengs's glory, which Quintana declared perpetual, survived in the triennial celebrations of the Academy for several more years. In 1793 Clemente Peñalosa, clergyman and political writer, spoke of the superior aesthetic effect produced by the products of «the fertile imagination of Mengs or Correggio» (Distribución 1793 74); in 1799 Ramón Cabrera, lexicographer and literary scholar, taking up in prose the theme of Núñez Gaona's earlier verses, praised monarchs who favored such great artists as Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, and Mengs (Distribución 1799 92). By 1802, however, a generation had passed since Mengs's death; and José Luis Munárriz, translator of Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres and that year's academic orator, recalls an anecdote concerning Mengs, but without explicit praise for him (Distribución 1802 96).

Outside the capital, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Saragossa, in 1801, speaks glowingly of its countryman Azara and of the Obras of Mengs, «en que hace las más acertadas reflexiones sobre la belleza y gusto de la pintura... Puede considerarse esta obra como la verdadera filosofía de la pintura y de las artes...» (Actas Zaragoza LII). The Academy acknowledges Mengs's influence on its work, presumably that of his «Carta... a un amigo sobre la constitución de una academia de las bellas artes» (Obras 389-402). On the same occasion Dr. Agustín Alcaide recalls Mengs as the «filósofo pintor» who left «maravillas que son la admiración de los sabios y de los ignorantes». Not content with this tribute, he indulges his imagination: «¡Ah! ¡Cómo hubiera sido yo también su amigo! ¡Con qué atención escuchara sus sabias reflexiones! ¡Cómo hubiera penetrado en su estancia! Tal vez le encontrara dirigiendo sobre el marfil las manos de su hija, preparando este admirable don para coronar como lo hizo el mérito de don Manuel Salvador Carmona» (CVIII). The mention of ivory is probably a reference to miniature painting; Anna María Mengs, wife of Carmona, was an artist in her own right, elected to the Academia de San Fernando in 1790 (Pelzel 288n112).

In 1803 the Royal Academy of Mathematics and Fine Arts of Valladolid met to distribute prizes, and Fray Andrés del Corral, professor emeritus of Bible, explained that thanks to the writings of Mengs, artists must no longer complete their education by traveling to Italy (Actas Valladolid 65-66).

As late as 1830, the poet Félix José Reinoso quotes Mengs's judgment on Velázquez in a note to his Las artes de la imaginación, though the painter does not appear in the verses of the poem itself (Poetas líricos 3: 221n6).

Mengs was also remembered outside the academes and outside the circle of consecrated poets; ms. 17.676 of Spain's Biblioteca Nacional, a collection of compositions by various poets and in various hands, contains an anonymous Idilio lamenting his death in four hundred heptasyllabic verses (ff. 93-103). Since the Idilio speaks glowingly of the twin sons of the Prince of Asturias, it can be dated between September 1783, when they were born, and October-November 1784, when first one and then the other died (Cotarelo 281-82). The verses thus follow Mengs's death by four or five years. The handwriting is unknown to me; as for authorship, I feel confident only in saying that the poem's combination of hyperbole and awkwardness suggests that it is not the work of any of the better-known poets of the age. It presents an unidentified water deity mourning the death of Mengs:

    Mis lágrimas escriban
en pedernales [sic] fuentes
tu historia, para eterno
padrón de los terrestres,

tu muerte los mortales
desde el alba celebren
hasta que el día en brazos
de opaca noche muere.

   Y hasta la común madre [Nature]
tus exequias endeche,
que mejorar pudiste
con tus ricos pinceles.

The speaker quotes the laments of Father Tiber:

   Murió mi Mengs divino;
murió el más excelente
pintor que de su esfera
vio el luminar celeste.

    ¡Oh saber malogrado!
¡oh vida floreciente!,
antes de tiempo dados
al filo de la muerte.

   Divino arte, alto ingenio,
colores esplendentes,
donde llegar no pudo
de siglos mil la serie.

Esclarecido Antonio,
de estas edades fénix,
tu vida en tus eternos
matices se renueve.

   ¿Quién enseñará agora
cuál principio conviene
a aquella tan noble arte,
hechizo de las gentes?

Tiber goes on to link Mengs's name with that of Apelles and to praise his depiction of nature. Deprived of Mengs's person, he is reduced to contemplating Mengs's paintings; and he apostrophizes death:

    ¿A qué región llevaste
el pincel más valiente
que en círculos de siglos
gozó la humana especie?

    ¿Qué dirán de ti agora
las tres artes más fieles
al verse sin su lumbre,
sin su maestro al verse?

    ¿Qué dirá el Manzanares,
qué la corte luciente
que es madre de las ciencias
y un tiempo te dio albergue?

   ¿Quién su docta Academia
lustrará tan prudente,
ejemplos sin par dando
que imiten sus donceles?

   Ya se acabó el hechizo
de príncipes y reyes,
ni tienen ya qué admiren
el peregrino y huésped.

   Faltó a Naturaleza
quien sus primores vence;
en fin faltó el asombro
de todos los vivientes.

    Ingenio sobrehumano,
a ti solo se deben
honras que en cierto día
el claro sol renueve,
   Que, en fin cuando del orbe
trastornados los ejes,
den flores las esferas,
den astros los vergeles,
   entonces estas honras,
gran Mengs, faltarte pueden,
y a tu sien la corona
de inmortales laureles.

As do better-known, and better, poets, this writer proclaims Mengs's art superior to Nature herself and sees in it and in the learned painter's teachings the basis for his eternal fame.

While we have here limited ourselves to the comments of Spanish writers, Mengs's fame and glory extended throughout Europe. In 1764 Winckelmann dedicated his Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums to Mengs, whom he calls the greatest artist of his time and perhaps of times to come (Pelzel 2). Frederick the Great commissioned work from Mengs (Pelzel 79ff.); Diderot praised his art (Pelzel 77); Catherine II commissioned two paintings (Azara XLIII) and on Mengs's death gave orders to buy all the pictures in his estate, whatever the price (Nikulin 11). A relief based on Mengs's Parnassus adorns the portico of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg (Nikulin 12). After his death, Mengs's works were published in several countries and several languages. Goethe, in 1788, finds them «infinitely interesting..., in every sense an excellent book; there is no page that ore does not read with clear profit» (Italienische Reise, March 1, 1788, in Werke 7: 498). Still, as the eighteenth century ended, Mengs's standing as painter and philosopher, at least outside Spain, was in sharp decline (Pelzel, esp. 231ff., 254). His bust was removed from the Pantheon in 1820 (Pelzel 168-69 and n378).

Some recent critics have in part rehabilitated Mengs's reputation. Pelzel considers Mengs «a painter of major talents» who was «one of the last major painters of the Renaissance-Baroque tradition» (260-62), a judgment similar to Woermann's (293); von Einem calls him «the most important representative of the new classicism» of the late eighteenth century (ed. Mengs, Briefe 9); Xavier de Salas sees him as a Neoclassical theorist and «a great painter» who developed a unique style and gave form in his work to «a dream of beauty» (in Águeda, Catalogue 7-9). This dream met with an enthusiastic response in the Spanish literary world, among major writers and among more humble ones, on official occasions when the name of Mengs was linked with that of his royal patron, and on the more private level of personal letters and individual collections. Those who had known the painter personally (Azara, Ceán, Ponz, Iriarte) were joined by numerous others who only knew his works (e. g., Jovellanos, Meléndez, Quintana) in paying tribute to his skill and his knowledge. Not surprisingly, some of his most vocal admirers were authors who, like Iriarte, Meléndez, and Quintana, shared his ideas of good taste and his admiration for Antiquity and who, to varying degrees, represent Spanish literary Neoclassicism; but even Jovellanos, who increasingly appreciated Gothic architecture and a new, more Romantic, aesthetic, remained steadfast in his admiration for Mengs. For a quarter of a century after his death, Spanish prose and verse, consistently taking up the notes first sounded by Azara, celebrated Mengs as the modern Apelles, excelling all other painters and Nature herself, teacher and philosopher of art. Mengs left his mark on Spain's painting, but also on her literature.

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