Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)

London, National Gallery, from 20 February to 18 May 2008.
Then Lucca, 12 September to 12 December 2008. The exhibition was previously at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston from 20 October 2007 through 27 January 2008.

1. Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
The Vision of Saint Philippe Neri,
c. 1733-1734
Oil on canvas - 200 x 140 cm
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica,
Palazzo Barberini
Photo : D. Rykner

Englishmen passing through Rome on their Grand Tour, the trip through Europe that any true aristocrat had to take, wanted their portrait done by him. This is probably why Pompeo Batoni, one of the great Italian painters of the second half of the XVIIIth century, is still known in Great Britain and the reason he is being celebrated today. Right when the Baroque movement was breathing its last in Italy, Batoni was initiating the transition that would lead to Neoclassicism.

In a remarkable presentation, as always at the National Gallery, the retrospective [1] begins with the early works painted in his youth. Except for The Triumph of Venice (Raleigh), commissioned by a patron of the city in 1737 revealing a Batoni gone astray with a composition that attempts to imitate the style of Venetian artists but which is too complicated, one finds already in these canvases the characteristics so finely analyzed in the catalogue : “figures of arresting beauty and gracefulness, meticulously drawn and elegantly posed ; a vibrantly luminous palette, distinguished by a subtle interplay of colours : dazzling light effects, creating an atmosphere of emotional intensity without being overly theatrical ; and a painstakingly detailed finish almost bordering on obsession.” The technique is exceptional and the paintings are remarkably well preserved.

2. Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
The Marriage of Saint Catherine
with Saints Jerome
and Lucy

Oil on canvas - 420 x 220 cm
Rome, Palazzo del Quirinale
Photo : D. Rykner

3. Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
The Ecstasy of Saint Catherine of Siena, 1743
Oil on canvas - 280 x 220 cm
Lucca, Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi
Photo : Service de presse

There are multiple influences at play in his work but this in no way prevents the artist from quickly finding his own style. Raphael of course, Andrea Sacchi (ill. 1), Carlo Maratta and Guido Reni are his most obvious models, essentially from the Classical tradition although he also turns to Il Parmigiano who is present in the Holy Family from the Pinacoteca Capitolina and Corregio for The Marriage of Saint Catherine with Saints Jerome and Lucy (ill. 2) from the Quirinal Palace in Rome. His large retables (The Ecstasy of Saint Catherine of Siena, ill. 3) are measuredly, tranquilly Baroque in a style that may be compared to Pierre Subleyras as seen strikingly in the magnificent Blessed Bernardo Tolomei Attending a Victim of the Black Death (ill. 4).

4. Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
The Blessed Bernardo Tolomei Attending a Victim
of the Black Death
, 1745
Oil on canvas - 261 x 173 cm
Milan, San Vittore al Corpo
Photo : D. Rykner

5. Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
Colonel William Gordon, 1765-1766
Oil on canvas - 259 x 187.5 cm
Aberdeenshire, Fyvie Castle, The National
Trust of Scotland

6. Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
Sir Watkin Williams-Winn, Thomas
Apperley et du capitaine Edward
, 1768-1772
Oil on canvas - 289 x 196 cm
Cardiff, National Museum Wales

Batoni’s manner changed only slightly throughout his career as an artist. Although the religious and mythological paintings constitute an important part of his production, often overlooked for his portraits instead, it is obviously the latter that earned him his reputation. And his was never surpassed as proven by the selection on display at the National Gallery (only a few works from late in his life, weaker in quality, are an exception). Batoni was unchallenged in his talent for seizing a patron’s likeness. Despite the fact that he resorts to a sometimes repetitive formula, placing the subject almost systematically in an Italian environment, surrounded by antiquities, he never becomes monotonous. He varies the attitude of his figures and possesses an innate sense of composition. Some of his portraits are unforgettable and the exhibition’s central gallery assembles some of his greatest masterpieces : Colonel William Gordon (ill. 5) in Scottish dress, saber in hand seeming to speak as an equal with Rome, represented by an antique statue in front of the Coloseum ; Charles Compton, 7th Earl of Northampton playing with his dog, an animal often present in this type of portrait and the triple Portrait of Sir Watkin Williams-Winn, Thomas Apperley and Captain Edward Hamilton (ill. 6).

7. Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
The Death of Meleager, 1740-1743
Oil on canvas - 135 x 95 cm
Private collection

8. Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787)
Sir Humphrey Morice, 1761-1762
Oil on canvas - 117.5 x 172.8 cm
Norton Conyers, North Yorkshire,
Sir James and Lady Graham

Batoni was not only an artist to the British in Italy, he was also a painter for European monarchs, except notably the French. Although he never traveled to France, his measured style often evokes nonetheless Le Sueur, Poussin such as in The Death of Meleager (ill. 7) or Le Brun with Alexander and the Family of Darius (Potsdam, not present in the exhibition). In turn, the Portrait of Sir Humphrey Morice (ill. 8), sitting in a landscape, a painting of horizontal format, perhaps influenced Louis Gauffier and Francois-Xavier Fabre who, some years later, would use this very original arrangement.

The catalogue cannot really be considered as such. It is more like a biography, a fascinating one at that. Unfortunately, there is no attempt at rendering it user-friendly : the numbers for the figures do not refer back to the works presented and it is hard to know if a specific painting was shown or not in either of the two museums that welcomed the retrospective. It is just as difficult, unless one resorts to leafing through and happening upon it by chance, to find the page for a work on display, and even more complicated to discover where it is analyzed. It is high time that publishers understand that, sometimes, the books they produce are bought by readers who are becoming such a rare species that it is imperative they be given more consideration.

But we do not wish to end on a negative note and prefer to insist on the magnificent achievement of an exhibition which has all the elements needed to draw an enthusiastic flock of visitors. Alas, this is not turning out to be the case. The galleries remain hopelessly empty. We highly recommend this discovery of an exceptional artist. And then, time allowing, to continue their visit with the other exhibitions currently showing in London, including the one devoted to Thomas Hope (see article).

Edgar Peters Bowron and Peter Björn Kerber, Pompeo Batoni. Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome, Yale University Press, 230 p., £25 (paperback), £40 (hardback). ISBN : 978-0-89090-158-8 (paperback) ; 978-0-30012-680-8 (hardback).

Visitor Information : The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square London WC2N 5DN. Phone : + 44 (0) 20 7747 2885. Opened daly 10 h through18 h, Wednesday through 21 h. Admission charge.

Didier Rykner, dimanche 6 avril 2008


[1] It does not include any graphic works, which is a bit unfortunate, as the artist is an excellent draughtsman. The catalogue does however reproduce some drawings.

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