Prosper Lambertini, a native of Bologna, was elected Pope Benedictus XIV on 19 August 1740. Soon afterwards he asked Carlo Maratta's most respected pupils, Agostino Masucci (1691-1758) and the Frenchman Pierre Subleyras, to compete in producing his official portrait.
Set against the traditional, rather staid pose of Masucci's portrait of the Pope (Accademia di San Luca, Rome), which Anthony Morris Clark (Studies in Eighteenth Century Painting, Washington D.C., 1981, p. 98) memorably describes as being like a 'chilled hippopotomus', Subleyras' composition of the seated Pope, of which the present picture is an autograph replica, with its close attention to the floral patterns of the Pope's vestments and the curtain behind him, must have seemed strikingly refreshing.
The prototype now in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, finished by early 1741, was given by the Pope in 1757 to the Sorbonne, where it remained until the Revolution, and hung between Portraits of Louis XV and Stanislas Leczinski.
The success of Subleyras' composition was immediate. Versions were painted for Philip V of Spain (now lost), Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga, the duc de Saint-Aignan, French Ambassador to Rome, and for Marco Foscarini (now in the Seminario patriarcale, Venice). Subleyras kept for himself a study for this composition which can be seen in his picture of his Atelier, now in the Akademie, Vienna (Rosenberg, p. 27, illustrated). The composition was also engraved in 1741 by Rocco Pozzi (ibid., p. 253, fig. 19).
The present picture exhibits small differences from the Chantilly prototype, most noticeably the addition of the ribbon lying on the papers on the table and the slightly lowered position of the Pope's left hand.