ANTON RAPHAEL MENGS (1728=1779)
Louis de Visme (1762-67)
Oil on canvas (129 x 83 cm)
Christ Church College, Oxford
Another example of Mengs’ excellence as a portraitist. The portrait must have been painted between 1762 and 1767, the years when de Visme was in Madrid. This coincided with Mengs’ stay at the Spanish capital where he was First Painter to King Charles III (1762-69).
Louis de Visme (1720-1776) came from a family of exiled Huguenots who had settled in England at the beginning of the XVIIIth century. His father, Philippe de Visme, became a British subject in 1710. Louis was educated at Westminster School in London before entering Christ Church college where he graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1743 and Master of Arts in 1746. As he was intended for the church, he became a deacon, but then entered the diplomatic service.
Previously to his diplomatic career, de Visme visited Italy in 1758 as a tutor of the young Sir Wyndham Knatchbull-Wyndham, 6th Baronet. He was obviously very well connected and enjoyed a good reputation as it is demonstrated by a letter of recommendation from William Pitt to Sir Thomas Mann dated 18 January 1758 where its author refers to de Visme as “a gentleman of much worth” (quoted by Anthony Clark in Pompeo Batoni: A Complete Catalogue of his Work, Oxford, 1985). When in Rome de Visme and Sir Wyndham met Mengs; proof of this is a profile drawing of de Visme that bears the following note: “Louis de Visme/Antonius Raphael Mengs fecit Roma Ano 1759.”
After his appointment in Madrid, Louis de Visme was a delegate to the court of Bavaria, and from 1769 to 1773 he was the British representative at the Regensburg parliament, a sinecure since by the middle of the XVIIIth century the parliament had become “a mere congress of diplomats” that produced “no important legislation in political or constitutional matters”. From 1773 he was Special Ambassador to the Swedish court in Stockholm where he died in 1776.
Mengs portrayed de Visme with great simplicity. The diplomat looks at ease and relaxed. In his hands, he holds a letter that suggests his status as a civil servant. He seems to have been rather snobbish as he chose to be portrayed with a sword, the traditional symbol of a nobleman. Although wearing swords was fashionable among the gentry in XVIIIth century Britain by the 1760s it was becoming rare among civilians. Mengs used the traditional Baroque device popularized by van Dyck of a pilaster or column and swirling draperies to suggest a majestic setting. Louis de Visme looks the part as the elegant gentleman in an appropriate environment.