Apollo and two Muses, 1719
Giant of the Rococo and early Neoclassicism, Pompeo Batoni was born on January 25, 1708 in Lucca, Italy. Immensely popular in his time, his name sadly is not commonly recognized today because like many Old Masters, his work is not defined by one or two singular masterpieces but by an oeuvre that is overall, incredible. Batoni is something of an anomaly in that he had the midas touch in every genre he worked in, whether portraiture, mythological, and biblical. He trained under a few painters, notably Sebastiano Conca yet he quickly fused his own style together by reinterpreting Classicism with his own vigor for dynamic posing, color and anatomy that he felt was lacking in many artists of the Rococo. His reputation as a portraitist in Rome was highly successful, particularly for many British patrons of the Grand Tour who had heard of Batoni by word of mouth and sought his genius.
In Apollo and two Muses above Batoni seems to conjure mythology and Classicism with ease, yet note the attention to anatomy and composition. Apollo is truly a god, with an angelic face, perfect skin tones and statuesque physique that makes even the muses themselves fawn over him. Drapery is also not a challenge in the slightest for Batoni. Choosing an overlapping v-shape arrangement of the figures, Batoni creates a sense of equality between the muses and Apollo, even though he is the prize of female mortals. Amusingly, Batoni gives Apollo quite the "tent" on the drapery above his groin, and the muse to the left holds her two flutes greedily with another kind of suggestive music on her mind. Batoni fuses the sensuality of the Rococo with a firm Classical structure and Baroque grace that is enthralling.
Antiochus and Stratonice, 1746
Antiochus, son of King Seleucus of Syria, was afflicted with an unknown sickness from his love for his stepmother Stratonice. Greek physician Erasistratus, said to have been the first to perform a dissection on a human, persuaded the King to give his new wife over to his son or risk losing him. Antiochus recovered fully afterwards, according to legend. Here Batoni's realism and storytelling is compelling, with Antiochus lying on the bed with one knee raised and another foot on the floor ready to meet Stratonice. His red drapery clearly suggests his passionate love for her. A canopy of red drapery above the bed softens the light falling on Antiochus, revealing also Batoni's knowledge of light and shadow. Stratonice clutches her King's arm but looks fondly at Antiochus. King Seleucus is bewildered by what had transpired here, yet Batoni gives his face an expression torn between the love of his son and giving up Stratonice. Erasistratus off to the left in orange drapery advises the King with his hands. Despite the horizontal composition of the figures by using perspective with background figures Batoni creates a real sense of space. A mere fifty years later Ingres would also explore this very theme.
Time orders Old Age to destroy Beauty, ca.1746
A highly allegorical theme that is difficult to interpret without risking melodrama or worse. Here Batoni's version of Time is sculptural and Apollo-like, a painting himself, while Old Age is a tough, hardened peasant woman. Beauty herself appears Mannerist, unusually tall and, confused by what is unfolding. Note how Batoni frames all three figures in a sort of circular arrangement to emphasize how intrinsic all three of them are to each other in this theme. Still, sexual innuendo abounds with Time holding his hourglass like an erection, and his foot placed between hers. Batoni can't seem to resist the humor, something that would have been impossible during Raphael's era.
Commissioned by the same patron as the painting above, here Batoni takes the subject more seriously. Batoni's main figures are sculptural and with an attention to posture and physical action that dominates the painting, that ability to personify an idea, emotion, or mythical figure are among his key talents. Here Batoni associates sensuality with materialism, and his facial expressions tell a story all their own.
Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1749
An absolutely stunning achievement, this is one of Batoni's most riveting works. Artists from centuries before have depicted martyrdom in various interpretations but in Batoni's vision, always the Humanist, St. Bartholomew is dignified and muscular. This point of view places the torturers in a far weaker light, merely following orders and unaware of their ignorance. Despite the lack of fear by Bartholomew, we are still horrified by the way in which he is senselessly being tied up and carved like a beast. Not only a painter of perfect bodies and pretty faces, Batoni's torturers are portrayed as two distinctly different characters, real and ruthless without any melodrama or unnecessary dark shadows to hide their faces. Batoni shows them exactly as they are, instead painting the background in a dim light.
Vulcan in his Forge, 1750
One of my favorite paintings, Batoni makes a striking portrait from a mythological figure. Sculptural and brooding, with hands placed on his blacksmith hammer and anvil, again Batoni personifies metalwork, ingenuity and fire.
James Caulfeild, 4th Viscount Charlemont (Later 1st Earl of Charlemont), 1756
One of the many aristocratic portraits Batoni painted, this Irish politician had a love of art that allowed him to travel throughout Europe and the Middle East. The casual pose and confidence that Batoni ascribes him, with an uniquely ornate shirt and jacket, is a testament to Batoni's ability to paint several portraits in the midst of complex religious and mythological paintings, all seamless and without any hint of effort.
The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, 1756
A dream-like interpretation of this often-painted mythology, Batoni combines complex details of the chariot with whimsical clouds and life-like figures to challenge our notions of an ancient story. Note how the use of color is fresh and vibrant, drapery flawless, and his anatomy spot-on.
Diana and Cupid, 1761
Here we see Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt holding the bow of Cupid away from his reach. One of Diana's powers was the ability to talk with and manipulate the behavior of animals, and here Cupid's impulsiveness proves he cannot be controlled. Diana was one of the maiden goddesses, meaning she vowed to never marry and was associated with chastity and virginity. Batoni portrays her as a strong yet beautiful warrior woman playing with an overeager Cupid, and note how the composition of her figure resembles a curve shape, much like a crescent moon that she also represented. The vivid orange-red of her robe is absolutely striking, and it brings out the natural verdant green landcape behind her. Even the attention to anatomy of the dogs beside her is amazing.
Cleopatra and Antony, 1763
One of the most famous love stories of the ancient world, Batoni depicts the moment where Antony is dying at the side of Cleopatra. Having stabbed himself for fear that she had taken her own life, he lies beside her relieved that she is still alive but she is horrified by his wound, helpless to save him while her handmaiden weeps in disbelief. Look at the expressions on their faces. This is real passion and fear in their eyes. By foreshortening Antony, Batoni gives him a sense of depth and presence that is palpable. How Batoni was able to convey this from mere models posing for him defies imagination. With attention to uniform and drapery, skin tones, anatomy yet highlighting the faces of these lovers who will die for each other, Batoni creates one of the most passionate paintings ever created.
Susanna and the Elders, ca. 1750's
This often-painted Biblical theme is freshened in the eyes of Batoni, who gives the elders movement and action while keeping Susanna still. It is an unusual painting, a blend of Rococo and Baroque, yet the way the fountain is looming off to the left of the frame suggests a scene from cinema, as if peering out from behind it. This is something never seen before in painting such as this. Batoni's blue and red drapery is poetic; his ability to take one or two colors and make them a focal point is a testament to his genius. As some scholars consider the story apocryphal (St. Jerome noted it wasn't written in Hebrew in the Bible) it is possible Batoni heightens the drama here deliberately to emphasize this dubious story.
Male Nude Leaning on a Ladder, 1765
One of many nude studies Batoni drew, demonstrating his remarkable draftsmanship and attention to detail.
Thomas Fortescue, 1767
Another one of Batoni's portraits, this man was an Irish MP dressed in a floral green and yellow garb. Batoni paints this face with a subtle, transparent shadow yet uses strong highlights on the nose and corner of the right eye. For someone who probably posed a short time for this portrait, Batoni nails the character of this man without drama or seriousness. In the hands of Van Dyke or Rembrandt this portrait would clearly be something different and profound, but Batoni holds his own quite well here.
I love this painting. Batoni returns again to personifying the sacred saints of the Church by making them real people, without brooding darkness or melodrama. This is a beautiful portrait with a sculptural Classical influence and gorgeous color harmony, and once again Batoni foreshortens the face to add interest and character to the saint and the man who is the foundation of the Vatican. Batoni makes him approachable and familiar, something never attempted before. And it works. An artist who had few weaknesses and a star in his lifetime, it is worth rediscovering this giant whose talent is not given the credit it deserves.