The Venetian history painter Jacopo Amigoni arrived in London in late 1729 and established his reputation with a much admired decoration of the staircase in the Earl of Tankerville's house in St James's Square (1730-31). He was persuaded by 'the Courtiers and quality' to turn to portraiture which was, remarked Vertue in 1732: 'not his inclination - nor Talent.' Even so, he was 'much imployd' in 1734 and the following year newspapers reported 'a great Concourse of Persons of Distinction' clamouring to see his 15-foot tall portrait of the opera star Farinelli.
Even so, Amigoni's practice as a portrait painter was limited to the royal family and courtiers; his likeness were not regarded as good enough to satisfy a large clientele and demand was limited by his high price of £60 for a full-length. In an approach that anticipated Reynolds's historical portraiture, Amigoni included 'ornamental figures &c that made agreable pictures' such as in his portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Cumberland in which she was 'delivering up his Royal Highness to the Goddess of Wisdom.'
Elayne Claye identified thirty-four of Amigoni's portrait studies that the London dealer F R Meatyard had in about 1925. These came from 'at least one notebook' and several loose sheets, examples of which are now in the Louvre, the Courtauld Galleries, Fitzwilliam Museum, British Museum, Nationalmuseum Stockholm and at Princeton. Claye was uncertain of the role these studies played in Amigoni's portrait practice; whether they were record drawings in the manner of Edward Byng, or posture sketches to show clients in the tradition of Lely. The fact that many were found in a notebook might argue that Amigoni drew them after finished paintings. Cleye identified several of the sitters among the English royal family, including Frederick Prince of Wales and William, Duke of Cumberland, and the daughters of George II. Though the sitter's identity in the present drawing is unknown it is likely that he was a courtier.
Vertue's disdain for Amigoni's portraiture - remarking that it 'has some Air but neither firm lines nor certainty of features. but intirely gay and light' - was in line with press criticism of Amigoni's decorative work, which was 'only calculated to please at a glance, by the artful mixture of a variety of gay colours, but have no solidity in them; and of course, will not bear an examination' Both of these critiques were made in a general defence of English painting and in the immediate aftermath of the death of Thornhill, England's acknowledged history painter whose reputation had suffered when his work at Moor Park, Hertfordshire, had been rejected in favour of Amigoni. In 1734 Hogarth had intervened to prevent Amigoni from painting the staircase at St Bartholomew's Hospital by offering to do it himself.
- Vertue, vol III, pp.55, 62, 74; General Evening Post, 1 July 1735.
- Old Whig, 10 July 1735. Vertue, vol III, p.94.
- Extensively reported in the Grub Street Journal, 13 June 1734, 4 July 1734 and 1 August 1734; Vertue, vol III, p.75. On this controversy, see John B Shipley, 'Ralph, Ellys, Hogarth, and Fielding: The Cabal against Jacopo Amigoni', in Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol 1, no 4, Summer 1968, pp.313-31.
- Amigoni also failed to win the commission to paint the Queen Mary building at Greenwich in 1738, despite a public announcement to that effect. London Daily Post, 17 February 1738.