Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 15, 2008
Edgar Peters Bowron and Peter Björn Kerber Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome Exh. cat. New Haven and Houston: Yale University Press in association with Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2008. 240 pp.; 152 color ills. Paper $35.00 (9780890901588)
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, October 21, 2007–January 27, 2008; National Gallery, London, February 20–May 18, 2008
Thumbnail
Large
Pompeo Batoni. Peace and War (1776). Oil on canvas. 53 1/2 x 39 in. (136 x 99 cm). Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Old Masters Society, 1998.152.

Pompeo Batoni (Lucca 1708–Rome 1787) was one of eighteenth-century Europe’s most famous artists, lionized by popes, princes, and connoisseurs who saw his poetic and technically dazzling art as the acme of Italian painting and wore a path to his studio in one of Rome’s most fashionable districts. That simple fact bears stating, given how far Batoni’s star would sink among later generations; Sir Joshua Reynolds’s prediction that the artist would soon fall into near oblivion seems justified by the sale of a distinguished painting in 1928 for just £2. Few of his pictures were on view to the general public in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Britain, while those papering its stately homes remained the preserve of cognoscenti. To the extent that Batoni was remembered it was for his Grand Tour portraits, suave images of British milordi that have occasioned more gossip than analysis, rather than the secular and sacred compositions on which he staked his reputation.

Over the past half century that injustice has been redressed by a dedicated team of scholars including Isa Belli Barsali, Anthony M. Clark, Edgar Peters Bowron, Christopher Johns,1 and now Peter Björn Kerber, who have gradually given Batoni the attention he deserves. Museums have followed suit, so that the painter’s representation in U.S. public collections has grown tenfold since Clark’s first article on the artist in the early 1960s. Batoni’s fourteen canvases and nine drawings made him the dominant personality in the 2000 exhibition Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts), where his place in the Roman scene could finally be appreciated. The current exhibition, with its related publication and symposium, goes even farther to ask whether an artist still dubbed “Pompous Baloney” by the occasional wag could again be appreciated on his own terms: whether, in sum, twenty-first-century viewers could respond to a painter who epitomizes the radically different visual culture and values of Italy’s ancien régime.

Everything about the exhibition, jointly curated by Bowron and Kerber, was designed to test that thesis. The installation in Houston was a tonic, with an understated logic and a minimum of signage to distract from the sheer joy of looking. Dove-grey walls proved the ideal foil for Batoni’s liquid pinks, blues, scarlets, and greens, while the meticulous spacing and illumination of the pictures had the perfect pitch of a well-tempered clavier. Even the frames (with a few exceptions beyond the curators’ control) enhanced the symphonic effect, since a remarkable number of Batoni’s canvases remain in the custom-gilded Salvator Rosa moldings in which they left his studio. This lent surprising unity to a collection drawn from dozens of lenders, demonstrating that benign neglect often proves the best preservative. Drawings were excluded despite their importance to the artist’s formation and practice, as if to respect his rigorous insistence on polish and decorum. For patrons, this could lead to maddening delays. “My honour,” Batoni wrote in 1744, “requires me to despatch no work that isn’t finished with the greatest attention and diligence, for the reason that one single slipshod work could make me lose all the credit acquired up to now.” The paintings, in sum, stood on their own in all their exquisite perfection.

Sixty-five pictures (slightly fewer are currently being shown in London) were arranged in seven top-lit galleries that led from the artist’s first religious and mythological compositions of the 1730s and 1740s, through mid-century portraits of clerics and sovereigns as well as British travelers, to the large-scale works of the 1760s and 1770s, most as meticulous and poised as those executed decades earlier. That itself may surprise exhibition-goers used to dramatic evolutions from ill-digested early influences to a loose, late style that exposes the true personality. Batoni, by contrast, is fully himself from the earliest picture on view, a luminous Vision of St. Philip Neri (ca. 1733–34) that synthesizes the compositional clarity of Andrea Sacchi or Carlo Maratti with an emotional earnestness and sense of color that is already all his own. By the same token, even a later picture like The Appearance of the Angel to Hagar in the Desert (1774–76, in the last gallery) is redolent with productive echoes of Pietro da Cortona and G. B. Gaulli.

Indeed, much of what viewers needed to know about Batoni could be gleaned from the first room. Two pairs of languid allegories (Truth and Mercy and Peace and Justice, both of 1745) epitomized the voluptuous chasteness of Batoni’s female protagonists. Two historical scenes (Antiochus and Stratonice of 1746 and Susanna and the Elders of 1751, both intergenerational psychodramas) demonstrated his talent for inventing the perfect gesture and facial expression to capture fleeting emotion. And two early mythologies based on ancient reliefs (Prometheus Fashioning Man from Clay and The Death of Meleager, pendants of 1740–43) highlighted his uncanny ability to distill a narrative to its essentials while exerting an absolute command of paint. A tiny drip of saliva on the boar’s creamy tusk becomes the objective correlative to Atalanta’s tears, while the Prometheus—placed opposite the exhibition entrance—stands as the artist’s manifesto. He too was a magician, giving form like the primitive sculptor and life like the goddess of wisdom, here holding a butterfly so transparent that her fingers appear through its wings. The picture’s trio of expressive hands—embodying clay, flesh, and the ineffable soul—encodes the alchemy at the heart of Batoni’s practice.

Many more such controlled explosions of meaning occurred throughout the exhibition, as each wall was calculated both to look good and make a point. In the gallery of Grand Tour half-lengths, the juxtaposition of Robert Clements and Lord Charlemont (both ca. 1754) highlighted nuances of pose and costume: as Bruce Redford suggested during the symposium (see below), the sitters’ differentiated hands balance the active and contemplative life, while their distinctive red-collared frock coats (according to Aileen Ribeiro) record tourists’ taste for Italianate versions of traditional British cuts. Not that all or even most of Batoni’s sitters wore their own clothes: the curators’ pairing of Richard Milles with Edward Dering—both painted about 1758 in the same lynx-lined, red velvet overcoat over white waistcoat and black solitaire—drew attention to this luxurious studio prop and to the artist’s shifting preference for selected color combinations. Visitors were thus encouraged to consider Batoni’s portraits both as social performances and as painterly creations in which virtuosity ruled. Other impromptu pendants animated the installation, such as John Wodehouse and the Duke of York facing each other in blue and gold, or the red-clad Thomas Dundas and Count Kirill Razumovsky beckoning viewers through the exit and on to the permanent collection. One of the curators’ coups was to reunite an unorthodox pair once owned by Sir Humphry Morice. After purchasing Batoni’s Diana and Cupid of 1761 (now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum), Sir Humphry commissioned an unusual reclining portrait with nearly identical dimensions, landscape setting, and canine staffage. Steffi Roettgen’s compelling suggestion that Sir Humphry invoked the image of the virgin huntress disarming Eros to rebut charges of sodomy suggests how many personal meanings may still lie undetected beneath both Batoni’s portraits and his subject pictures.

Bowron’s comprehensive monograph of 1985, based on research by Tony Clark, freed the organizers from producing a standard catalogue (indeed, only two major new works have since come to light, both on view: a magnificent 1766 portrait of Senator Abbondio Rezzonico formerly known from a reduced copy, and an allegory of Peace and War of 1776 discovered in a French collection). Instead, the accompanying publication offers what the field needed most, a concise and sumptuously illustrated evaluation of the artist’s career that reflects extensive new research. Four chronological chapters parallel the exhibition. The first examines how Batoni looked to admired precursors (Raphael, Barocci, Annibale Carracci, Domenichino, Reni) to create the early subject pictures that culminate with his altarpiece for St. Peter’s, completed (but subsequently rejected) in 1755. That debacle, still not fully understood, accelerated the artist’s turn to the lucrative practice of portraiture explored in chapter 2. The authors emphasize that Batoni did not invent the “Grand Tour portrait” (one place where comparative illustrations might have been helpful), but synthesized prevailing trends and tuned his products to British taste, aware that his pictures would compete with Van Dycks in country-house galleries. The chapter chronicles these pictures’ expanding scale and ambition as Batoni ennobled portraiture with the trappings of history painting, much as Reynolds would do; it also discusses Batoni’s sensitive portraits of women, often overshadowed by the more boisterous lads.

Chapter 3 surveys Batoni’s work for a parade of European courts (he was almost unique in serving nearly all), for which he crafted both official and informal portraits as well as subject pictures redolent with flattering allegories of princely or papal virtue. More than one sovereign hoped to lure him north of the Alps, but Batoni preferred to let Europe’s glitterati come to him, whether for a studio sitting or for one of the musical evenings for which his elegant house was famous. It is this section that conveys the strongest sense of the mature artist’s virtuosity and versatility, as he switched effortlessly between genres while priding himself on his abilities as an ideator. One of Bowron and Kerber’s principal goals is to demolish the canard (best embodied by Michael Levey in Rococo to Revolution [London: Thames and Hudson, 1966], 175) that Batoni was a magnificent technician in whose works “almost nothing is said.” They demonstrate repeatedly—clinching the point in chapter 4 on the artist’s last years and reception—that Batoni’s appeal for contemporaries lay just as much in his ability to invent his own programs, allegories, and concetti through which to communicate abstract ideas in a universal visual language. The loss of the painter’s theoretical testament is partly to blame for his declining reputation. Yet Batoni’s very facility may also have worked against him, by concealing all too well his meticulous intellectual and practical preparations.

The final chapter on drawings and studio methods reviews just this question. Like any aspiring painter Batoni steeped himself in the Old Masters and the antique, producing some of the finest record drawings of ancient statuary ever made (many now at Eton College), as well as all the standard types of preparatory sketches. Their relative paucity, however, suggests that the primary corpus kept in the studio has been lost or destroyed. If Batoni’s training remains a mystery (he was not apprenticed to any known master), his technical skills were consummate and his paintings are among the century’s best preserved. The concluding discussion of materials, techniques, and business practices contains vital details. We learn, for instance, that the sure-footed artist made few pentimenti and painted faces directly onto the canvas, often finishing portraits long after the sitter had left Rome; and that although some patrons considered him exorbitant, his pricing was more consistent and generally lower than that of comparable British figures. A checklist, bibliography, and extensive notes of new archival discoveries make the volume an essential starting point for studying Batoni’s oeuvre.

The international symposium held in Houston on January 25 and 26 suggested some of the new inquiries this project has stimulated and augurs well for the next generation of Batoni studies. Bowron’s opening remarks chronicled Batoni’s changing fortunes and his place in Italian art, highlighting the historical and mythological pictures (as well as portraits of non-British sitters) that still need further investigation. The morning’s first two papers focused on religious works. Christopher Johns began with a discussion entitled “Batoni and the Catholic Enlightenment,” arguing that despite their superficial continuity with the Baroque, the artist’s sacred pictures reflect Rome’s mid-century climate of moderate modernization. Like Benedetto Luti, Pierre Subleyras, and Marco Benefial, Batoni seemed skeptical of the supernatural and emphasized the clergy’s social utility even in altarpieces like The Blessed Bernardo Tolomei (1745), conceived during a campaign for canonization. Other commissions (like the 1743 Ecstasy of St. Catherine of Siena or the famous Sacred Heart of 1767) reflect a more conservative spirituality, so Johns left open the question of Batoni’s private views. Peter Björn Kerber’s learned talk on Batoni’s “saints and biblical heroines” uncovered his fidelity to specific biblical texts and commentaries that led him to abandon old traditions and break new visual ground. Mining the archives in Lisbon, Kerber also definitively identified Toledo’s small and highly-finished Virgin and Child in Glory (ca. 1747) as the modello for an unfinished altar for João V, a puzzle still unsolved when the book went to press.

Three papers dealt with Batoni and the British, who commissioned most of his 225 known portraits. Bruce Redford dissected the artist’s signature formula in “Batoni and the Grand Tour,” teasing out the intertextual references to Van Dyck, Titian, and the antique while capturing the mood of these young blades. His characterization of Thomie Dundas as “a scarlet bird of paradise flashing through the Vatican’s sculptural jungle” raised the specter of irony: do these British swagger portraits also record Italian bemusement at the rarae aves in their midst? Alastair Laing’s helpful survey of Batoni sitters in National Trust houses exposed the strong ties of kinship in the artist’s patronage network, while reminding us that any portrait practice contains an element of drudgery. In “Batoni and the Arts of Fashion,” Aileen Ribeiro approached his works as a precious record of eighteenth-century dress, while noting how freely he altered reality for expressive effect. Costume played an essential role in establishing degrees of formality and informality, and revisiting the show after Ribeiro’s paper brought fresh insights.

The remaining presentations linked Batoni to contemporary artists. Martin Postle challenged Reynolds’s patriotic dismissal of Batoni and his Roman peers, arguing that Batoni was an inspiration for British painters from Allan Ramsay and Nathaniel Dance to Gainsborough and Sir Joshua himself. In a particularly thought-provoking paper, Steffi Roettgen offered a paragone between Batoni and his younger competitor Anton Raphael Mengs, whom contemporaries identified with the Greek painters Apelles and Protogenes. Transcending easy contrasts, Roettgen showed how each embraced the rivalry by swapping signature details and adopting (while hoping to surpass) each other’s manner. Style was an article of faith in eighteenth-century Rome, and Mengs and Batoni’s differing use of historical models revealed fundamentally divergent outlooks on the needs of contemporary painting. If Batoni was Italy’s “last Old Master” (to quote Clark’s favored phrase), Mengs extracted their lessons as the foundation for an entirely new art.

Does this last Old Master, in the end, appeal to modern eyes? If not, they need recalibrating to the lofty standards of tradition. “Born a painter,” according to his first biographer, Batoni was anything but a rebel. Devout, ambitious, and preternaturally talented, he painted to support more than a dozen children, earn social standing, and burnish the image of Europe’s elite as well as to pursue his own Muse. Although steeped in the grand manner, he wept over his own pictures like a son of sensibilité. Batoni was a painter’s painter, and it is hard to imagine an initiative better calculated to make his case. Intelligent, judicious, and never overstated, the exhibition made Batoni look as at home in a modern museum as he must have on palace walls. After decades of rehabilitation Batoni is having his day. Houston’s 350-seat auditorium was filled to capacity for Bowron’s opening address, with extra chairs for the overflow. The London venue reintroduces him to the nation he once intoxicated, while Lucca will mount its own retrospective in December with more contextual material and major altarpieces that could not leave Italy. That Batoni generates such enthusiasm after generations of neglect speaks as much to his undimmed powers of seduction as to modern scholars’ efforts to put him and his century back on the map.

Jeffrey Collins
Professor and Chair of Academic Programs, Bard Graduate Center

1 Isa Belli Barsali, ed., Mostra di Pompeo Batoni, Lucca: Rivista “La Provincia di Lucca,” 1967; Anthony M. Clark, “Batoni’s Triumph of Venice,” North Carolina Museum of Art Bulletin 4, no. 1 (1963): 5–11; Clark, “Batoni’s Professional Career and Style,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Painting, selected and edited by Edgar Peters Bowron, Washington, DC: Decatur House Press, 1981, 103–118; Clark, Pompeo Batoni: A Complete Catalogue of His Works with an Introductory Text, edited and prepared for publication by Edgar Peters Bowron, London: Phaidon, 1985; Christopher M. S. Johns, “‘That Amiable Object of Adoration’: Pompeo Batoni and the Sacred Heart,” Gazette des beaux-arts 132 (July–August 1998): 19–28; and Johns, “Portraiture and the Making of Cultural Identity: Pompeo Batoni’s The Honorable Colonel William Gordon (1765–66) in Italy and North Britain,” Art History 27, no. 3 (June 2004): 383–411.

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.