A contemporary of Pompeo Batoni, the great French connoisseur Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) said that the artist had "a seductive brush that he uses in the grand finishing, he pleases and cannot suffice the commissions that he receives. He is especially busy making portraits, for which he is paid quite well
". With this gracious description, of Batoni's personality, Mariette summed up the artist's immense
popularity well. Hailing from a modest Tuscan town, Batoni became the most popular
portraitist in Italy. The son of a metalsmith from the city of Lucca, he won the Prize of Rome at the age of fifteen for bringing a chalice, made by his father Paolino Batoni, to Pope Benedict XIII.
Was it his first apprenticeship as a metal engraver that had given his works such a
degree of precision, of "grand finishing
" as Mariette wrote ? Nevertheless, his careful art of representation received wonderful acceptance amongst 18th century enthusiasts of his exceedingly refined portraits.
At the age of twenty-four, Batoni was spotted by Count Gabrielli, who had found him
busily copying a bas-relief at a Roman plaza. The Count was impressed by the delicate contours of his drawings and commissioned from him an altarpiece for his family chapel in the Church of San Gregorio al Celio. The great genre of religious paintings
thus formed an important part of his career, but it was his portraits which brought him the immense recognition throughout Europe. He was inspired very literally by the poses of Van Dyck, such as can be attested by the spectacular portrait of Thomas William Coke, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, resonating the posture of the portrait of Robert Rich, Second Earl of Warwick
by Van Dyck, now housed at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art.
Not surprisingly, with their rather English flair, Batoni's portraits were highly prized by the Anglo-Saxon, Scottish, and Irish clientele. "If Lord Cholmondeley goes to Rome, pray tell him I wish he would bring me a head of himself by Pompeo Battoni
(sic)" wrote Horace Walpole in 1771. At that time, Batoni was associated with Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), well-integrated within this Northern European nobility and who sent foreigners in masses to be portrayed by the artist.
Our portrait dated 1779, aligns entirely within this period of high English demands. The model, aside from his subtle elegance, his hat with turned up flat edges called Quaker, and his overcoat resembling more of an English tailcoat than court attire, could definitely be part of a privileged family, using Batoni's services. Due to not having any attributes except the fashionable and elegant clothing of the time, it is unfortunately impossible to identify this distinguished young man today. He is similar to other young English men painted by Batoni, and a similar tailcoat was worn by
the architect John Corbet of Sundorne Castle, with the portrait housed at the Wortcester Art Museum, but no other known portrait by Batoni seems to depict this sitter.
However, in spite of this unfortunate anonymity, this painting testifies well to the artist's lure from the British Isles to Austria where he realized the double portrait of Joseph II and Leopold II.
1 A. de Montaiglon, Abecedario de P. J. Mariette (...), t. I, Paris,
1853, p. 80
2 E. Peters Bowron & P. Bjorn Kerber, Pompeo Batoni Prince
of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome, Exh. cat. London,
2008, p. 37.