A truly international court artist, Jacopo Amigoni’s career straddles four of the most important artistic centres of 18th century Europe: starting in his native Venice, on to the Bavarian ducal court in Munich, through to London’s fashionable aristocratic circles, and finally ending at the Bourbon court in Madrid. Combining cool elegance with polite sensuality, Apollo and the Muses encapsulates the sophisticated and decorative appeal of Amigoni’s art, the foundation of his great success. On the basis of its German provenance – the picture is first documented in the Goldschmidt collection which left Berlin in the early 1930s, and considering its dimensions, which do not correspond to a standard English size, the picture probably dates from late into Amigoni’s Bavarian period, which ran from 1717 to 1727. In Munich, Amigoni was employed by Elector Maximilian II Emanuel, for whom he painted various fresco cycles to adorn his residences of Schloss Nymphenburg and Schloss Schleissheim. Drawing on the Venetian tradition of Sebastiano Ricci, as well as the Bolognese school, Amigoni anticipates the French Rococo, with his use of a lighter palette, devising a pictorial formula that would prove highly successful with his later English audience.
In Apollo and the Muses, the elegant arrangement of figures leads the viewer’s eye from the commanding figure of the sun-god to the sensuous members of his entourage. A classical subject and a celebration of the various arts, the theme of Mount Parnassus, where Apollo and his inspired companions congregated, had been popular among artists and erudite patrons since Raphael’s celebrated version of the theme in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican. Six of the muses can be identified here thanks to their traditional attributes: the beautiful reclining nude to the left foreground, holding a mask, is Melpomene, muse of Tragedy; to her left, cradling a globe is Urania, the muse of Astronomy; next to her, with a small trumpet in hand and a flute at her feet, is the muse of Music, Euterpe; behind her, Calliope, the muse of Epic Poetry pens a few verses with her quill; seated beneath Apollo against a discarded viola, Erato, the muse of Lyric Poetry, strikes a melancholic pose; finally, entranced in the dynamic rhythm of her tambourine is Terpsichore, the muse of Dance. Together, the various arts embodied by the muses would have constituted the foundation of a classical education and would no doubt have resonated among the cultivated elite who patronised Amigoni. The only other recorded version of this subject by the artist, which is of vertical format, dates to his English period and is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.