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One of Anton Raphael Mengs' finest portraits featured in exhibition at the Prado Museum
Anton Raphael Mengs, Anna Maria Mengs. Paper, 57 x 44 cm. Second half of the XVIII Century. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

MADRID.- The recent acquisition by the State and its entry into the Prado of the remarkable Portrait of José Nicolás de Azara, painted in 1774 by Anton Raphael Mengs, has led to the organisation of this small exhibition, which evokes the friendship and close collaboration that existed between the two men; Mengs, the Neoclassical painter from Bohemia, and Azara, one of the leading names of the Spanish Enlightenment.

Portrait of José Nicolás de Azara by Mengs
This intimate and strikingly simple image, painted in Florence in early 1774, is an outstanding example of Mengs’s particular classicism and is considered one of his finest portraits. It is also important due to the identity of the sitter, who was one of the most prominent representatives of the Spanish Enlightenment.

Mengs’s portrait conforms to the taste of the time in its use of a pure Neo-classical mode, of which the artist was one of the principal exponents. Azara is depicted with a sublime dignity and naturalness that suggest his intellectual integrity. He has none of the accessories normally used to evoke power and authority but is portrayed with a psychological depth that reveals his character. Particularly striking is his lyrical expression, with its slight smile conveyed through the “gentle movement of the mouth and eyes” that Azara considered the Ancient Greeks to have used to represent the movements of the soul. His expression transmits his friendship with Mengs, his sensibility and his passion for literature. The latter is also indicated by the book that he holds, which he momentarily sets aside in order to focus on the artist with a spontaneity of the kind newly fashionable in 18th-century portraits.

The exhibition
The exhibition focuses on the friendship between Mengs and Azara, the affinities between their aesthetic ideas and their close artistic collaboration. It also looks at the way they were depicted in portraits, Azara’s collecting activities, and his role in the promotion and dissemination of Mengs’s works.

In addition to the recently acquired painting, other eloquent proofs of the friendship between the artist and his patron are the two bronze busts of Azara and Mengs of 1779 by the Irish sculptor Christopher Hewetson. The exhibition also includes a Self-portrait by Mengs (ca.1761-1765) dating from the time he first met Azara and their collaboration on the production of a medal to commemorate the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Asturias, which is also on display. Another later Self-portrait of around 1774-1776 was the primary model for the dissemination of the artist’s image in Spain. It is present here through a copy in pastel by Mengs’s daughter, Ana María, and a print after it by Ana María’s husband, Manuel Salvador Carmona.

As examples of the affinity between the two men’s aesthetic ideas, the exhibition includes a drawing by Mengs of the classical sculpture of Antinous as Osiris (original in the Vatican Museums), and a print after a drawing by Mengs of one of the mural paintings in the Villa Negroni.

In 1779 Azara initiated an excavation project in Tivoli near Rome. Following the discovery of fifteen portraits of Greek philosophers and poets and other small sculptures in the so-called Villa dei Pisoni, Azara began to collect classical portraits and sculptures, possessing around 70 examples by the end of his life. His collection, which is now divided between the Real Casa del Labrador in Aranjuez and the Museo del Prado, is represented here by sculpted portraits of the poets Homer and Menander, the Epicurian philosopher Hermarcus and the Attic general Miltiades, in addition to a statue of a Dacian from Trajan’s Forum in Rome and one of Fortuna.

Also on display is a copy of the Life of Cicero by Conyers Middleton, edited and translated by Azara and illustrated with prints of sculptures from his own collection. Azara’s role in protecting and disseminating Mengs’s artistic legacy is conveyed in the exhibition through a print of his portrait by Mengs, engraved by Domenico Cunego; a commemorative medal of the “philosopher painter” by Caspar Joseph Schwendimann, in which Azara included his own image; Las Obras de D. Antonio Rafael Mengs, edited and with commentaries by Azara, published in Parma and Madrid in 1780; and the first biography of the artist written in 1780 by Ludovico Bianconi and illustrated with a print relating to Azara’s homage to Mengs after his death when he installed a bust of him by Hewetson in the Pantheon in Rome.

Finally, Azara’s friendship with Napoleon arising from his diplomatic mission of 1796 is documented through two works: a commemorative gold medal issued that year by the Senate in Rome in honour of Azara and his negotiation of the Armistice of Bologna; and a medal with a portrait of Napoleon that commemorates the Peace of Amiens, which Azara signed in 1802 as the representative of the Spanish monarch. The exhibition is accompanied by an essay-catalogue written by the curators, Stephen Schröder, Head of the Department of Classical and Renaissance Sculpture, and Gudrun Maurer, Curator in the Department of 18th-century Spanish Painting and Goya, both at the Museo del Prado.

Azara and Mengs
The relationship between the two men yielded its first artistic results in 1765 when Azara requested the collaboration of Mengs in the design of a medal to commemorate the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Asturias.

José Nicolás de Azara (Barbuñales, 1730 – Paris, 1804) became widely known in Spain from the time of his first appointment as a civil servant in the Government Office in 1760. He subsequently achieved international renown through his diplomatic post in Rome, where he remained for more than thirty years, followed by Paris from 1798 to 1803 as Spanish ambassador at a delicate period in the last decade of the 18th century and early years of the following century. Among Azara’s numerous friendships with leading cultural and political figures were those with Winckelmann, the theoretician of classical art, the famous typographer Bodoni, Pope Pius VI and politicians such as Godoy in Spain and Napoleon and Talleyrand in France.

Anton Raphael Mengs (Aussig, 1728 – Rome, 1779) initially trained with his father Ismael Mengs in Dresden then went to Italy to study the works of the Italian masters including Raphael, Michelangelo, Carlo Maratti, Correggio, the Carracci, Guido Reni and Titian. In 1751 he was appointed painter to the privy chamber by the Elector of Saxony, Frederick August II. During his time in Rome from 1752 to 1761, where he met the German archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Mengs evolved the theories that formed the basis of his writings on ideal beauty and the recovery of the perfection of art through the study of the great models of the ideale classico. After painting the fresco of the Parnassus in the Villa Albani, which can be considered the embodiment of Neo-classical art, Mengs was summoned to Madrid by Charles III, the Elector of Saxony’s son-in-law, to supervise the decoration of the Royal Palace.

Appointed painter to the privy chamber in 1766, he introduced the new artistic trends into Spain and supported Spanish painters such as Maella, the Bayeu brothers and Goya. Due to poor health, Mengs returned to Rome in 1769. As a commission from Charles III, in 1770 in Florence he painted the portraits of the families of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany (Museo Nacional del Prado), at which point he made plaster casts of the most important classical and Renaissance sculptures in their collection, which he used for teaching purposes. In Rome the artist was appointed director of the Academy of Saint Luke and received important commissions for paintings for the Museo Clementino and the basilica of Saint Peter’s. Having returned to Madrid in 1774 he went to Rome again in 1776, where he died of tuberculosis in 1779. Mengs’s output encompasses history paintings, religious works, frescoes on religious, mythological and allegorical subjects, and an important group of portraits.

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