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Mengs was one of the most famous artists of his day. He was court painter to Charles III of Spain and was a celebrated portraitist as well as noted for his historical and mythological works. Here he points to a sketch for one of his last completed paintings, 'Perseus and Andromeda' (Hermitage, St. Petersburg). In the best tradition of artists’ self portraits, this is a work of searching introspection: his face bears signs of emotional strain and weariness, his hair is unkempt and he wears his ordinary workday jacket and scarf.

Details

  • Title: Self Portrait
  • Creator: Anton Raphael Mengs
  • Date Created: 1774
  • tag / style: Anton Raphael Mengs; Self-portrait; naturalism; pallid; green; pointing; drawings; Perseus and Andromeda; court painter; jacket; scarf; illness; lead poisoning; man; face
  • Physical Dimensions: w562 x h735 cm (Without frame)
  • Additional artwork information: The Self-portrait was painted during Mengs' stay in Florence between autumn 1773 and May 1774 and was commissioned by George Nassau, the third Earl of Cowper, a great admirer of Mengs' work and one of his major British patrons. Contemporaries described Cowper as a vain man who dominated British expatriate society in Florence. By the time of their first meeting in 1770 Mengs was an internationally famed artist, originator of the Neo-Classical style of art and a successful Grand Tourist portrait painter. He was a former child prodigy, court artist to two of the most cultured courts in Europe, Dresden and Madrid, and recently elected Principal of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. Mengs' pupils and admirers were often keen to own a likeness of the master and he satisfied this need by producing many half-length self-portraits in oil and pastel. This painting is more than a self-portrait used to advertise the artist's wares to a patron - it is the only one of his self-portraits to show him with an example of his work. By showing a work-in-progress with its preparatory underdrawing for obviously classical figures, rather than the more usual finished work, the picture became an exemplar of Mengs' artistic theories. It emphasised his artistic credo that modern art must follow the art of the ancients to recover its greatness, and furthermore that he was the modern equivalent of that spirit of antiquity. Even the ordinary workday jacket and scarf he wears, and the picture's colour scheme, recall his colour theories. He recommended green as being the most pleasing of colours, not fatiguing to the eyes, whilst red added liveliness and brightness particularly to the flesh and eyes. But the overall mood of Mengs' Self-portrait is not that of celebration but of confession. Underlying the picture's seeming propagandising self-advertisement is a pessimistic disillusionment, the result of his searching introspection. His haggard face bears the signs of emotional strain. His lank hair, pallid skin, rheumy eyes, red with weariness, are all painted with intensely observed naturalism, and indicate the incipient illness, probably chronic lead poisoning, that was to kill him in five years time.
  • Type: Oil on mahogany panel
  • Rights: Purchased in 1953

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