The San Diego Museum of Art has a new addition to its collection, a portrait by 18th century painter Anton Rahael Mengs. Looking a little like a svelte George Washinton, the image is meant to capture the likeness of Don Luis de Borbon, younger brother of King Charles III, a celebrated art patron who gave Francisco Goya commissions for his first major works.
But all those august antecedents aside, the Ringling Museum in Sarasota has a better Mengs. (More about that in a moment).
Lacking drama, the poses in Mengs’ work often seem lifted from antiquity – likely due to his research with the archaeologist Johann Joseph Winckelmann into Greek art,, which led to the rise of Neo-Classicism. But that’s another story. Suffice it to say, a studied look is everywhere in his work (except in the Ringling Mengs), even in pictures of himself.
In a Self-Portrait, Mengs poses himself looking askance, as if he were watching himself in a mirror. And he assumes a studied, staged gesture by extending his hand outward similar to that of an old Roman statue.
Historian James Northcote said that Mengs “affected the great man; to be sure, the court that was paid him, even by crowned heads, might in some measure excuse it… (but) I remember once seeing Mengs come along with a whole train of his pupils to see these tapestries (from Raphael’s cartoons in front of St. Peter’s); he marched on before, with a ridiculously pompous air, and they walked behind him just as the cardinal’s attendants did.”
Apparently Mengs had quite an ego problem. G. M.Urbani’s biography of fellow 18th century painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolodetailed a rivalry between Mengs and Tiepolo and reasons for it tell a lot about Mengs.
“With two strokes of the brush Tiepolo could obtain effects which Mengs was far from being able to procure, even with much labor; Tiepolo had a wonderful fluency which Mengs was in no way able to imitate. The impossibility of rivaling Tiepolo so weighed upon Mengs’ spirit that he sought to defeat him by illicit methods.“
As the story goes, Mengs hired two thugs to beat Tiepolo during a trip to keep him from painting for a while. Mengs had climbed a tree to watch:
“All of a sudden the tree where Mengs had stationed himself broke , and he fell senseless to the ground. The bandits abandoned their prey and ran to Mengs’ aid. The latter, picked up with much care by Tiepolo, who helped to transport him on a road which was difficult for a sick man.“ Afterward, the two artists made their peace.
Now about the Ringling Mengs, titled “The Dream of Joseph.” With a blend of the expressive Baroque and objective Classical styles, the artist pits idealization of an angel with a grittily real-looking Joseph in sleep. The painting illustrates the Bible’s Matthew 1:20 when Joseph hears the angel say, “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife; for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.”
Mengs depicts Joseph as weary in sleep. The muscular form makes clear he worked with his hands. But while shadows give Joseph a third dimension, the angel appears without shadow, illuminated only by light.
Given the stiffness of the San Diego Mengs, you’d almost imagine that the Ringling Mengs was made by a different painter.