Richard Miles's velvet cape was, no doubt, an Italian purchase.
Richard Miles's velvet cape was, no doubt, an Italian purchase.
Courtesy of MFAH

"Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome"

Among the portraits on view in "Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is one of a British tourist named Robert Clements. To commemorate his trip to Rome, the 21-year-old Clements posed casually, leaning against a pedestal that displayed a bust of the blind poet Homer. He clasped a book in his hand as if he were about to hold forth on the Iliad.

While today's tourists might bring back a snapshot of themselves on the Spanish Steps, in 1753 wealthy young British men like Clements headed to Pompeo Batoni's studio to have their portrait painted. To show where they had been, Batoni obligingly painted them surrounded by icons of Italy — Roman artifacts and scenes from the Italian countryside. Batoni practiced history painting, the supreme genre of the period, but portraits of the British elite (and their dogs) on what was then known as "the Grand Tour" became his bread and butter.

Travel before rail was arduous and epic — roads were few, and the Alps stood between British travelers and Italy. But the Grand Tourists all visited the same sites, not unlike today's if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Brussels package tourists. A Grand Tour could last anywhere from months to a half-dozen years. Although older people, families or young women accompanied by spinster aunts would occasionally make the journey, the Grand Tour was primarily seen as a way to finish the education of young, classically educated British men with an in situ dose of culture.


"Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome"

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

Through January 27.

For the less studious, the Grand Tour was equivalent to a college Spring Break — but with servants and unlimited funds, and lasting for months on end. Escorted by tutors, colloquially known as "bear-­leaders" (because of their unruly charges), The Grand Tour was also a way to get these wealthy young men to sow their wild oats far from home and the family name. The itinerary usually included France, Switzerland and maybe Germany, but Italy was the primary destination and Rome the ultimate stop.

We see in Batoni's subjects an eagerness to show where they have been and to pose in exotic garb the same way contemporary tourists don loud shirts on Caribbean cruises. Twenty-three-year-old Richard Milles, in his 1758 portrait, models a fur-lined red velvet cape thrown dramatically back as he stands with one hand on his hip and the other pointing to his travels on a map. The flamboyant cape was, no doubt, an Italian purchase. A bust of Marcus Aurelius as an equally young man rests on the table next to him. But Aurelius's brand of "manliness without ostentation" was apparently lost on Milles.

Scottish tourist Colonel William Gordon's choice of wardrobe for his 1765 portrait took another tack. In the same way a Texan might jingoistically sport a cowboy hat and boots on a European vacation, Colonel Gordon stands against a background of the Coliseum and next to a statue of the goddess Roma in enough tartan plaid to reupholster every sofa between here and Rome. This looks like the kind of guy who would send back his pasta and loudly demand haggis.

There is a quote from a letter written by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley from Naples in 1818, almost 50 years after Gordon's portrait, and it illustrates just how very different Italy must have been for the British. "There are two Italies... The one is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man; the other is the most degraded, disgusting, and odious. What do you think? Young women of rank actually eat — you will never guess what — garlick! Our poor friend Lord Byron is quite corrupted by living among these people, and in fact, is going on in a way not worthy of him."

Beyond creating a cultural record from the period, Batoni was a renowned and highly skilled painter. His ability to render likenesses of sitters, record the details of their dress and convey the gestures of their hands was widely remarked upon, then and now. Batoni also had the talent to render a likeness in a flattering manner. His portrait of Lord North is a case in point. A contemporary described North as possessing "two large prominent eyes that rolled about to no purpose (for he was utterly short-sighted), a wide mouth, thick lips, and inflated visage, gave him the air of a blind trumpeter." Batoni strategically angled North's face to minimize its stunned blowfish effect and distracted the viewer with his careful rendering of North's clothing.

Batoni's skill extends to the very purposeful compositions of his paintings, strategically engineered to lead your eye through them. You don't notice it as much in later works like the artist's tourist portraits, but in his early paintings his compositional machinations are less artful. In The Vision of Saint Philip Neri (c. 1733-34), an altarpiece Batoni painted for a private chapel, the virgin and child hover on a cloud while a lily held by the infant Jesus acts almost like an arrow pointing to the figure of Neri. Your eye moves through the sweep of Neri's robes and would run right off the left side of the painting, except for a Bible on the ground, mysteriously angled upwards like a skateboard ramp. It launches your eye back up into the figure of the virgin and child. In later works like the full-length portrait of George Gordon, Lord Haddo, the composition flows more easily, drawing your eye down through the sitter's stance and the cut of his coat, then aiming it back upward with the angled head of Gordon's dog.

Batoni's careful compositions, appropriately symbolic objects, detailed renderings of his subject's fashionable dress and tactful likenesses remind us of the time when craft dominated painting. The advent of photography rendered painted portraits superfluous, and today's version of the "Grand Tour" is much more democratic, involving backpacks and Eurail passes. But some things don't change — tourists still like to have their pictures taken...


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