Anton Raphael Mengs’s father Ismael (1688–1764), a somewhat obscure portrait painter employed in the Dresden court, was determined to make his children artists of world renown. Described as ‘a true goth and a vandal’—Ismael presided over a tyrannical academy, where his children were taught from dawn to nightfall the rudiments of drawing, geometry, and the unremitting practice of copying Old Master prints. Ismael succeeded in his objective with Anton, who by the age of twelve had become an acclaimed artistic prodigy. After further training in Rome, specifically drawing the male nude under the instruction of Marco Benefial, Mengs was ultimately to develop into one of the great draftsmen of the 18th century.
The present drawing, which dates to the mid-1750s, is a fine example of the artist’s life drawing. A pictorial summation of his investigation of the aesthetics of the male form, refined by his studies at his own private academy—the ‘École de Mengs’ in the Via Sistina—and at the newly established Accademia del Nudo on the Capitoline, where Mengs in the mid- to late- 1750s was one of the school’s principal teachers. The drawing is in the tradition of the early studio academies of 16th-century Florence and Rome, the Carracci school in Bologna and the later virtuosi of Italian life drawing: Guercino, Cortona and Bernini. The study’s singular synthesis of anatomical exactitude and ideal form exemplifies Mengs’s devotion to ‘il vero’ (the perfect imitation of the true)—a dictum which he regularly recited to his students. The ‘École de Mengs’ was located on the Strada Vittoria, today the Via Sistina, a couple of hundred meters from the Spanish Steps. From the early 1750s until close to the end of the decade Mengs rented this large house as a site for both his spacious studio and as living quarters for his young family. Until his death in 1749, the second floor of the house had been occupied by the French artist Pierre Subleyras (1699–1749), and it was on this floor that Mengs’s studio and private academy operated. A painting by Subleyras shows the spacious central room.
In this building Mengs also drew from plaster casts of antiquities, which the artist had made himself. These fragments of heads, bodies, feet, and hands were positioned under a large skylight, and the students would use these casts to draw anatomical studies. The casts were used in lieu of a nude model, which the papacy forbad in private studios. Access to Mengs’s substantial collection of engravings was given freely and the prints were pored over against a backdrop of informal discussions about artistic methods, theories, and each other’s drawings. Although Mengs was occupied for much of the day in his own private studio, the artist Laurent Pécheux (1729–1821), related that Mengs would offer advice and occasionally correct the students’ drawings as he crossed the cast room to his own studio. Johann Wilhelm Beyer (1725–1796) observed that Mengs ‘in the evenings, when he no longer had sufficient light for his work, used to come to us to study, and spend an hour to talk about an article of art.’ Notable British artists that attended the ‘École de Mengs’s during these years include Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798) and Nathaniel Dance (1735–1811). Indeed, in 1759, Hamilton as Mengs’s successor rented the second floor of 72 Via Sistina. From 1782 until her death in 1807, Angelika Kauffmann also lived and worked there.
Pécheux and other students of Mengs frequently remarked on the artist’s impressive ‘didactic inclination’, and this propensity was given greater scope after Pope Benedict XIV founded the Accademia del Nudo in 1754. The academy was ‘freely accessible and free of charge’—Mengs was one of ten professors, and the only non-Italian, to instruct, direct and lead the teaching program there. In 1755, he was among the first professors to lead a teaching cycle, and he ‘devoted himself assiduously to improving the study of the nude and modernizing the repertoire of poses’ (Roettgen, Anton Raphael Mengs 1728–1779: Life and Work, vol. 2, p. 128). Dr. Steffi Roettgen has revealed how the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay attended Mengs’s first course in 1755. The present academy study was almost certainly drawn by Mengs at the Accademia del Nudo during this period. Such a date is supported by both the inscription, and the style and technique of his draftsmanship. An almost identical academy drawing by Mengs—although the direction of the body is reversed—is dated 1755 and uses a sheet of the same dimensions (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Rome). After 1755 there are scarcely any extant nude drawings by Mengs using red chalk on white paper, the typical medium and material used for academies at that date.
The vibrancy of the red chalk outside and around the model’s figure, both in the cast shadows and almost uniform background of softened chalk shading, are formed by parallel hatching; the cast shadows being made from a pattern of sharper visible strokes with wide intervals of space between each line. The light source in the setting (probably a studio lamp) is positioned above and to the side of the model. This vertical illumination enhances the sculptural quality of the figure. Poses were often variations of a standard repertory. The present one is uncommon; it is somewhat close to a bronze Seated Hermes, found at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum in 1758, housed today at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, whose discovery may have predated Mengs’s drawing.❖