em>José Nicolás de Azara, Rafael Mengs. Oil on panel, 77 x 61,5 cm, 1774, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

This intimate and strikingly simple image, painted in Florence in early 1774, is an outstanding example of Mengs’s particular classicism and is considered one of his finest portraits. It is also important due to the identity of the sitter, who was one of the most prominent representatives of the Spanish Enlightenment.

Mengs’s portrait conforms to the taste of the time in its use of a pure Neo-classical mode, of which the artist was one of the principal exponents. Azara is depicted with a sublime dignity and naturalness that suggest his intellectual integrity. He has none of the accessories normally used to evoke power and authority but is portrayed with a psychological depth that reveals his character. Particularly striking is his lyrical expression, with its slight smile conveyed through the “gentle movement of the mouth and eyes” that Azara considered the Ancient Greeks to have used to represent the movements of the soul. His expression transmits his friendship with Mengs, his sensibility and his passion for literature. The latter is also indicated by the book that he holds, which he momentarily sets aside in order to focus on the artist with a spontaneity of the kind newly fashionable in 18th-century portraits.

 
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