Monday, 25 February 2008

Crown Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony

Crown Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony 1714 -15
Nicolas de Largillierre
Oil on canvas 140.8 x 107cm

The NGV's impressive portrait of Fred hangs opposite "The Banquet of Cleopatra" by Tiepolo. He was the first owner of Tiepolo's painting, and he seems to contemplate it with proprietorial interest over the heads of the tourists and art lovers wandering about the room. Two and a half centuries ago, it hung in his hunting lodge at Hubertusberg, where he had to abandon it together with the rest of his collection when he fled to Poland at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War. It seems appropriate that he has on some metaphysical level been reunited with his property, albeit in a city that did not exist when he owned Cleopatra's Banquet.

You may think it unduly familiar of me to call His Gracious Majesty "Fred", but I don't have the stamina to refer to him by his rightful name of Prince Frederick Augustus II, by the grace of God King Augustus III of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Galicia, Prussia, Masovia, Samogitia, Kyiv, Volhynia, Podolia, Podlachia, Livonia, Smolensk, Severia, Chernihiv, and hereditary Duke and Elector of Saxony, so he'll just have to put up with being Fred to us.
Nicolas de Largillierre was a member of the Académie Français and the leading portraitist of his day. He was adept at the flattering enhancement of his sitters' apearance, which may be part of the secret of his success in attracting wealthy patrons.

Fred sat for De Largillierre during the year he spent in Paris in 1714-15, when he was still Crown Prince. He was 19 years old at the time. At the age of 20, he married the Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I. They had fifteen children.

The portrait was intended to be a pendant to that of his father, who had all the same names as Fred, (just with different numbers). He was known as Augustus The Strong and liked to show off by straightening horse shoes with his bare hands. His pendant portrait is now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

The two portraits were painted at the same time – the sitters wearing similar armour and both sporting the sash of the Danish Order of the Elephant. They have a robust and confident air.

Painted against a stormy sky, Frederick Augustus (senior) points imperiously back into the landscape in a gesture of command. Frederick Augustus (jnr) has a more gentle expression, which seems to temper his power with benevolence despite his magnifencently regal bearing. Like his father, he was passionately interested in art and architecture. He amassed an impressive art collection and continued work on the fantastic baroque palaces his father started at Dresden and at Warsaw.

Together father and son created a collection of over 800 magnificent paintings, which can be seen today at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. The collection includes major works like Giorgione's Sleeping Venus and Raphael's Sistine Madonna, among other well-known works by the entire First Team of Old Masters.

Frederick Augustus jnr had no great interest in politics or the affairs of his dominions, preferring to concentrate on his other interests: hunting, the opera, and his art collection. He delegated most of his powers and responsibilities to Heinrich, Count von Brühl, who became quasi-dictator of Poland.

This slack attitude fostered internal political anarchy and the weakening of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The thirty years of his reign saw the Seven Years' War and the partitioning of the Commonwealth among its neighbouring countries. His eldest surviving son, Frederick Christian, eventually succeeded his father as Elector of Saxony, but not as King of Poland.

The NGV acquired the portrait through the Everard Studley Miller Bequest, and the dull gold frame is the original 18th century French one, which is why I didn't crop it out. It is interesting to see how it sets off the splendor of the painting's Royal subject.
"Painting and Sculpture before 1800 in the International Collections of the NGV" : NGV Publication.

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