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Domenico Conti c.1742 - 1817
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Portrait of Antonio Canova in his studio completing the La Touche “Amorino”.
oil painting on canvas 244 x 191cm (96 x 75in) in a giltwood frame
Agnelli Collection, Turin.
Literature: Rome, Diario Ordinario di Chracas (n.1922, 1st June 1793 pp.18-19).
Giuseppe Pavanello, Il carteggio Canova: quatremère de Quincy (Ponzano, 2005, ill. pl. XXIX)
Painting completed by June 1793.
The sculptures by the artist shown in the painting are: Tomb of Pope Clement XIII (1792, Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican) left rear; Amorino (1793, National Gallery of Ireland) centre, on pedestal; Psyche (Ince Blundell Collection (c.1790-3)
As Hugh Honour has most kindly pointed out, this painting is unusually well documented in the Roman newspaper Diario Ordinario: (op. cit):
“Nello studio situato a strada Pontefici dell pittore mantovano signor Ab. Domenico Conti Bazzani è esposito al giudizio degli amatori delle belle arti un gran quadro dipinto ad oglio rapprasent il ritratto del celebre scultore Sig. Antonio Canova nell’atto si scolpire la statua di Cupidi e rappresentande il fondo del quadro dello studio dello scultore medesimo, ivi sono effigiarti all’ intorno i modelli delle varie opere insigni da esso eseguite. Questo ritratto riscuote l’approvazione ed il plsuaso di tutti gl’independenti per la bella composizione, per l’esatto disegno, per vago colorito e per le molte difficultà dell’arte bravamente superate dal valoroso pittore nel sup lavoro”
Domenico Conti was born in Mantua in about 1742 and was trained as an artist in that city by Giuseppe Bazzani (1690-1769), whose surname he subsequently appended to his own. By the time of his apprenticeship to Bazzani, the latter’s style had moved away from the classical style which he had learnt from the exemplars of Mantegna in Mantua, and had adopted a more exotic style typified by the “Lunar” canvases, moonlit and atmospheric pieces with silver tonality. Bazzani had become Director of the Mantua Accademia whilst the teacher of Conti (1767) and his style reverted to a more sombre and spiritual manner which was followed by his pupil. In 1770, Conti moved to Rome, working largely as a portrait painter in the service of the Papacy, and lived there for the remainder of his life. He adopted the new conventions of Neo-Classicism as did so many of his fellow artists in the Rome of the last quarter of the 18th century. He became professor of painting at Rome and was the teacher of Giuseppe Tominz who lived and studied with him until Conti’s death in Rome in 1817.
Canova’s portrait was painted by some forty artists throughout his life, a significant indication of the high esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries (see W. C. Lane, American Library Association Portrait Index, p.245). The present depiction is a significant rendition of the sculptor since it shows him surrounded by works that were amongst his most important commissions. It is clear from the newspaper report cited above that this must be a portrait of Canova whilst executing the version of Amorino completed in 1793 for John David La Touche of Marlay (1729-1817) and now which is now in the National Gallery of Ireland (the earlier ex-Lord Cawdor version of 1786 is at Anglesey Abbey, Nat. Trust). This assertion is confirmed on the basis of the modelling of the hair which equates with that of the La Touche version.
That an Irish Grand Tourist should have commissioned such a sculpture is hardly surprising: La Touche was well acquainted with the group of English and (especially) Irish artists like John Flaxman (1755-1826), Christopher Hewetson (1739-1799) and Henry Tresham (1750-1814) and, above all, Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1739-1808). Hamilton’s portrait of Antonio Canova in his studio with Henry Tresham, (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) is a further example of a portrait of the Sculptor by one of his admiring contemporaries:
Hugh Douglas Hamilton: Henry Tresham and Antonio Canova with the latter’s Cupid and Psyche (Pastel, V&A Museum). Executed between 1782 and 1788, when all three artists were in Rome.
Henry Tresham: The excavation of the statues of Apollo and Nine Muses at the Villa do Cassio, Tivoli,1779. (Watercolour drawing, Private Coll.) The sculptures depicted are now in the Galeria delle Statue, Room of the Muses, Museo Vaticano. The drawing depicts the moment when Polyhymnia was disinterred. Canova’s stylistic debt in his Armorino to these famous (and then recent) discoveries is self-evident. Tresham (resident in Italy 1775-1788), Hamilton (in Italy 1782-1791) and Canova were close friends in Rome.
The extent of Hamilton’s involvement with the La Touche family is evident by the large number of portraits he painted of family members (see S. Benedetti, The La Touche Amorino, Dublin, 1998, p.8 and W. G. Strickland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists, Dublin and London, 1913, vol. I, p. 441). In fact, Hamilton had been well known to the La Touches since the mid-1760s: he is known to have painted three portraits of John David in oil (a full length portrait is in the collection of the Bank of Ireland); three pastel portraits (one of which is in the National Gallery of Ireland). From 1787 to 1793 La Touche returned to Italy and it was whilst he was in Rome that he sat to Hamilton. In 1789 he commissioned from Canova the Amorino (see S. Benedetti, The La Touche Amorino, Dublin, 1998, pp.18-25, no. 1.) which was finished in 1793. There can be little doubt that it was Hamilton who introduced La Touche to Canova.
The relationship between the two men continued after their respective return to Ireland. Hamilton stayed for several days in August and September 1792 at La Touche’s house, Bellevue, in County Wicklow (see F. Cullen, ‘The Oil Paintings of Hugh Douglas Hamilton’, Walpole Society, vol. L, 1984, p. 170). On 14 August 1792 he was present at the unpacking of Canova’s Amorino at the La Touche home in Harcourt Street, Dublin (Ibid. pp. 169-70).
A delay in payment to Canova provoked Hamilton in 1794 to describe John David La Touche as the most indecisive and distracted man of this world (Ibid. p. 170). Nevertheless, two years later they were still enjoying each other’s company as attested to by John David’s record in his diary on 21 May 1796, ‘I dined at Mr. Hamilton’s saw his pictures most exquisite… Miss H aimable [sic]’. Three days later he went again to see Hamilton’s paintings (see N. Figgis and B. Rooney, Irish Paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, vol. 1, National Gallery of Ireland 2001, p. 186, n.106; information supplied by Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin; Dublin, NLI, Pos 6016, Diary of John David La Touche 15 July 1794-29 August 1796).
As for the other sculptures surrounding Canova, the statue of Psyche, seen at the right is the one made for Henry Blundell of Ince (1790 – 93). The second version made circa 1795, after the completion of the present painting, is now in the Kunsthalle, Bremen. The funerary monument depicted in the background, is that of the Tomb of Clement XIII for St. Peter’s in Rome (1783-92), though on the scale of a modello rather than the size of life.
The strength of the connection with the Irish patron La Touche and the Irish artist Hamilton is emphasised by the latter’s portrait of Colonel Hugh O’Donel of Newport Co. Mayo (tentatively dated by Cullen to c.1796; perhaps the sitter was the gentleman of that name with Dalton at Paestum in 1791):
As in Conti’s Canova, the pose of the sitter is rather rhetorical; the chironomic gesture implies a connection (a rhetorical zeugma) between Classical Thought, represented by the busts on the pedestals to which O’Donel reaches out, and the sitter. Likewise, Hamilton depicts Tresham in a pose akin to Alciati’s contemplatio. All these gestures find their fons et origo in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, the first century Roman “handbook” on rhetorical education from which many renaissance and later artists derived their stock poses.
Comparative photograph: Hugh Douglas Hamilton Captain Hugh O’Donel. It seems reasonable to suppose that Hamilton’s imspiration for this portrait was Conti’s Canova