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0052 Pavel Suchánek, 'Peintre de Sa Majesté Britannique'. Franz Adolph of Freenthal and his portrait of Maximilian Hamilton, Prince-Bishop of Olomouc

RIHA Journal 0052 | 3 September 2012

"Peintre de Sa Majesté Britannique". Franz Adolph of Freenthal and his portrait of Maximilian Hamilton, Prince-Bishop of Olomouc

Pavel Suchánek

Originally published as:

"'K nejúplnější spokojenosti a potěšení znalců a milovníků umění'. František Adolph z Freenthallu: Portrét olomouckého biskupa Maxmiliána Hamiltona" ['To the greatest satisfaction and delight of connoisseurs and lovers of art'. Franz Adolph of Freenthal: Portrait of Maximilian Hamilton, Bishop of Olomouc], in: Lubomír Slavíček, Pavel Suchánek and Michaela Šeferisová Loudová (eds.), Chvála ciceronství: Umělecká díla mezi pohádkou a vědou [In Praise of "Ciceronism". Works of Art between Fairy-Tale and Science], Brno 2011, 150-163.

Translation and editing managed by:

Pavla Machalíková, Ústav dějin umění AV ČR, v. v. i. / Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague


This essay examines the portrait of Maximilian von Hamilton (1714-1776), the last Prince-Bishop of Olomouc/Olmütz, painted between 1769 and 1772 by Franz Adolph of Freenthal (1721-1773), a former painter to the British royal court. The study focuses in turn on three visual motifs in Hamilton's portrait: the rhetorical gestures of the sitter, his attire and the way he is depicted, and the form of presentation and the function of the painting in the ceremonial space of the princely residence. In examining each of these motifs, account is taken of the specific visual conventions applied in this genre, and of the contemporary rules of visual rhetoric. By referencing the classical motif of modesty and moderation from antiquity, Adolph underlined the importance of the ideal of antiquity and with it "natural" speech and behaviour. He attempted to express the spirit of antiquity by comparing contemporary clothing and rhetorical gestures to those of the orators or other public figures of antiquity. In a similar way to contemporary British painters, he thus referenced models taken from antiquity, with the aim of evoking a noble past and representing the ideal of the virtue of antiquity.


"A man of many English passions"

  1. On the last Saturday in September in the year 1769, the painter Franz Adolph (1721-1773) announced his arrival in the antechambers of Maximilian von Hamilton (1714-1776), the last Prince-Bishop of Olomouc/Olmütz. The forty-eight-year-old artist, a noted portraitist, was the proud bearer of the aristocratic title "of Freenthal", and also the honorary title of former court painter to the British King. The main reason for his visit to the Prince-Bishop's residence in Kroměříž/Kremsier was to sign and seal a contract for the decoration of the "Large Dining Hall" the main ceremonial hall of the Bishop's residence.1 The painter undertook to produce a full-length life-size portrait of the Bishop, and also three huge ceiling paintings on canvas, whose theme was to be a historical and moral exposition of the Bishop's device Sola nobilitat virtus (Only virtue ennobles).

1 Franz Adolph of Freenthal, Martin Karl Keller, Large Dining Hall, 1769-72. Archiepiscopal Chateau, Kroměříž (photograph © Martin Mádl, Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague)

  1. Franz Adolph (Adolphe and Adolf are also found) came from the Moravian town of Mikulov/Nikolsburg, situated on the estate of the princely family of the Dietrichsteins, less than a hundred kilometres from Kroměříž. His father Josef Franz Adolf (ca. 1685-1762) had worked there in the service of the Dietrichsteins as court painter, specialising in particular in painting animals and hunting still lives.2 His children followed in his footsteps – Karl Josef (1715-1771), who as court painter to the Bishops of Olomouc devoted himself to the same genre as his father; his daughter Theresia, whose married name was Girot (before 1715-1776), and about whose paintings only a few fragmentary references have been preserved; and possibly the youngest child Josef Anton (1729-after 1773), about whom, however, we know virtually nothing.3 The most prominent member of the Adolf family was the middle son Franz (1721-1773), who, after studying in Vienna and spending a short time in Paris, settled in the 1750s and 1760s in Great Britain, where he is said to have acquired the aristocratic title mentioned above, and also the title of painter extraordinary to the British royal court.4 After his return to Central Europe at the end of the 1760s he made a living as a portrait painter at the imperial court in Vienna, and in the 1770s is mentioned as inspector of the gallery in the Viennese town palace of the Dietrichstein family in the Herrengasse.5 In the eyes of the erudite sculptor from Brno, Andreas Schweigl, who was the author of the first book on art history in Moravia, Adolph personified the ideal of the well-travelled and sociable artist of the age of the Enlightenment, a man of "great eloquence and many English passions", whose work in Kroměříž is among the best that can be seen in Moravia.6

  2. At the beginning, however, Adolph's position in Kroměříz was evidently not all that easy. His first contact with Maximilian Hamilton seems to have come through his brother Karl Josef, who was the Bishop's court painter.7 However, loud criticism was heard from the circle of the Bishop's courtiers and artists immediately after Adolph's first drafts for the decoration of the hall were presented in the summer of 1769. The leader of the opposition seems to have been the Bishop's court engineer and architect Johan Anton Krzaupal von Grünenberg, and it also probably included the sculptor Franz Hirnle, who had drawn up the first plans for the hall, but who was now relegated to the sidelines with the appointment of Adolph. Grünenberg even allegedly got into a dispute with Hamilton himself as a result of some remark he made about the Bishop and the artistic and even the ethical qualities of Adolph's painting.8 Adolph was therefore obliged to respond to the reservations of his opponents, declaring that while his composition was unusual, it was a noble one, and would bring nothing but honour to the Bishop.9

  3. According to Jiří Kroupa, the cause of the dispute seems to have been Adolph's unusual interpretation of an otherwise conventional theme.10 For the painter, in the spirit of contemporary Enlightenment criticism of Baroque iconographic programmes, rejected the usual devices of Baroque emblematics and based his approach on historical (or mythological) and moralising narrative. At the same time it is paradoxical that most of the iconographic motifs used by Adolph were taken from an older written concetto drawn up after a design by the grand master of Austrian ceiling painting, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1734-1796). Maulbertsch had originally been commissioned to decorate the Large Dining Hall in 1760, but eventually after the death of Hamilton's predecessor Leopold von Egkh nothing had come of this.11 This original conception had been introduced by the statement that in a place of relaxation and refreshment "pleasant poetry is appropriate", such as The Banquet of the Gods at the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Parnassus with the Muses playing music and the Graces dancing, or The Judgement of Paris with the choice of pleasure in the terrestrial world.12 In Adolph's interpretation, however, the original "light-hearted pictures after the painter's fantasy" (Schertzbilder nach des Mahlers Fantasie) became a moral exposition of the Bishop's device Only virtue ennobles (Sola nobilitat virtus). (Figs. 2-4)

2 Franz Adolph of Freenthal, Marriage of Thetis and Three Graces (Victory of Love), 1769-72. Archiepiscopal Chateau, Kroměříž (photograph © Martin Mádl, Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague)

3 Franz Adolph of Freenthal, Abduction from the Bed of Sensuousness (Victory of Wisdom and Authority), 1769-72. Archie­piscopal Chateau, Kroměříž (photograph © Martin Mádl, Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague)

4 Franz Adolph of Freenthal, The Apotheosis of the Olomouc Bishop Maximilian Hamilton (Allegory of the family motto “Sola nobilitat virtus”), 1769-72. Archiepiscopal Chateau, Kroměříž (photograph © Martin Mádl, Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague)

  1. Nevertheless, it was precisely because he combined the higher genre of morally instructive allegory with the lighter genre of poetry, thus introducing into Baroque dining halls and summer palaces an easygoing playfulness, sensuousness, and relaxation from omnipresent ceremonial, that Adolph turned on its head the typical principle of Baroque rhetoric, calling for forms that were suitable and appropriate for the given function and content (decorum, bienséance).

  2. The series of unwritten ethical and aesthetic rules and conventions, often derived from the ceremonial function of the rooms for which the majority of 17th- and 18th-century paintings were created, and which fundamentally influenced and shaped the form of the pictorial depiction, is also evident in the distinctive genre of the portraits of the Prince-Bishops of Olomouc. In this context, too, Adolph's portrait of Maximilian Hamilton in the Large Dining Hall of the chateau in Kroměříž (Figs. 5-6) represents a fairly unconventional work, although this unconventionality is displayed in seemingly marginal details. However, in the following exposition we will try to show that it is precisely these details that may be the key to deciphering and understanding the work as a whole and its meaning. In Hamilton's portrait we find at least three motifs that are important for visual interpretation: a) the gestures of the sitter, b) the composition of the painting and the position of the sitter within the pictorial space, and c) the position and function of the painting in the space where it was displayed.

5 Franz Adolph of Freenthal, Portrait of Maximilian von Hamilton, 1769-72. Archiepiscopal Chateau, Kroměříž (photograph © Martin Mádl, Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague)

6 Franz Adolph of Freenthal, Portrait of Maximilian von Hamilton, 1769-72. Archiepiscopal Chateau, Kroměříž (photograph © Zdeněk Sodoma, Olomouc Museum of Art – Kroměříž Archdiocesan Museum)


The portrait of Maximilian Hamilton and the tradition of Baroque rhetoric

  1. In painting a full-length lifesize portrait of Maximilian Hamilton, Franz Adolph of Freenthal chose the format of an official state portrait of the court of Maria Theresa, the origin of which was linked primarily with the name of the imperial court painter and director of the Viennese Academy Martin van Meytens II (1695-1770).13 It was Meytens's portrait of the Prince-Bishop of Olomouc Ferdinand Julius von Troyer in 1746 which became the basic model for official portraits of the Bishops and Archbishops of Olomouc essentially up until the beginning of the 20th century. (Fig. 7)

7 Martin van Meytens II, Portrait of Ferdinand Julius Cardinal von Troyer, 1746. Archiepiscopal Chateau, Kroměříž (photograph © Markéta Ondrušková, Olomouc Museum of Art – Kroměříž Archdiocesan Museum)

  1. Its basic function was to represent social distinction and the ethical qualities of the ruler such as princely magnificence, justice, and clemency. To this end Meytens developed or introduced a whole series of striking pictorial devices – for example, situating Bishop Troyer in a monumental architectural setting, depicting symbols of authority and magnificence and using them as important elements in the composition of the painting (e.g. an ermine cappa magna and a velvet baldachin), or carefully arranging and precisely depicting the material qualities of the jewels and other luxury attributes of Troyer's office (a princely crown and a bishop's mitre, a sumptuously gilded table with a marble desktop). But what will interest us here are two other motifs: the gestures of the hands and the body language.

  2. These two elements are connected with two key terms used in the theory of portraiture at that time: "air" and "attitude". Understandably, the majority of early modern art theorists did not attach nearly as much intellectual value to portrait painting as they did to historical painting, which was considered the noblest genre in the painting hierarchy. On the contrary: in the eyes of Renaissance and Baroque academic theory, portraiture was in principle not a sister art to poetry, was not supposed to portray feelings, emotions, or passions, and the suspicion lingered that it was concerned only with mechanical imitation of reality. The first serious attempts to establish artistic and intellectual criteria for a new evaluation of portrait work date only from the beginning of the 18th century – as does the use of the two terms mentioned above.14 The term "air" is in a certain sense genuinely connected with reality: in a painting its most striking manifestation is movement, most often gesture. By contrast, the term "attitude" indicates stability, since it is connected with the expression of character. In other words, using attitude, the body language, or the way the subject is positioned within the space of the painting, it is possible to express or convey ideas. While "air" implies something real, whether it be the appearance or the manner of the sitter, the term "attitude" relates exclusively to the pictorial representation and the artist's inventiveness: the human subject is completely transformed by means of art. And because emotions and passions – the main tools of "noble" historical painting – were forbidden in portraiture, the portrait painter had to concentrate particularly on the correct gestures, body language, and attitude. The ideal examples and models for them, as with historical painting, were to be found primarily in the classical tradition: above all in the rhetoric of antiquity, extended to include the rules and conventions of contemporary oratory, and also the tradition of the sculpture of antiquity, which in the 18th century was essentially codified in several corpuses of binding models from antiquity.15

  3. As we have just said, the term "air" is connected primarily with gestures. In Adolph's portrait of Maximilian Hamilton, the right hand is hidden in the folds of the drapery. The only visible gesture is therefore that of the Bishop's left arm, which is extended sideways roughly to the level of the waist. The palm is turned upwards with the forefinger raised and the remaining fingers flexed. Even a superficial glance shows that the Bishop's gesture in Adolph's painting is completely identical with the gesture of Hamilton's predecessor Cardinal Troyer in the portrait by Meytens mentioned above. However, there is one fundamental difference between the two paintings. In the older one, which has been located under a baldachin in the hall of the Bishop's feudal court in the Kroměříž residence since it was painted in 1746, we see Bishop Troyer full face. His gaze and his rhetorical gesture were clearly directed at the viewer, whether they were participants in proceedings of the feudal court or attending other ceremonials at the Bishop's court.16 While the scene in Adolph's painting of Bishop Hamilton is identical, this time we see him in profile – here, the Bishop's hand is not directed towards the viewer, but towards somewhere in the background of the painting. This, however, has at least one important consequence for an understanding of the painting: what was previously a clear rhetorical gesture now becomes essentially unreadable for the viewer, and the question logically presents itself, whether in this case we are also dealing with a rhetorical gesture addressed directly at the observer of the painting. Is Hamilton's gesture perhaps directed at a fictional viewer, standing hypothetically somewhere to the right in front of the Bishop? Or could the movement of the Bishop's hand be connected rather with the attributes of the episcopal office that lie in front of him?

  4. Strangely enough, it is not possible to make a completely clear-cut answer to these seemingly simple questions. Judging from the position of the table (which incidentally is quite identical with the one in the Meytens portrait), and from the shadow that the figure of Hamilton throws on the floor, it would seem that the table is standing directly in front of the Bishop and that his gesture is thus not directed at it, but somewhere beside it in the pictorial space. However, even if we assume that the Bishop's gesture is intended for a hypothetical viewer situated somewhere on the right in the pictorial space, Adolph's composition would still not make a great deal of sense, because Hamilton's gesture would be at least partly hidden from the viewer by the table with the princely crown and the Bishop's mitre. For the time being, then, we can conclude our examination by saying that while the rhetorical gesture in the portrait of Ferdinand Julius Troyer was depicted fully in the spirit of contemporary rules and principles of public oratory and was undoubtedly addressed directly to the viewer standing in front of the painting, in the portrait of Maximilian Hamilton the identical gesture was deliberately made unclear by the unusual composition of the painting.


The rhetoric of antiquity and the reform of portrait painting

  1. In spite of these ambiguities, there exist a number of reasons for assuming that an observant viewer who was familiar with contemporary rhetorical rules for public speaking would still have been able to identify the Bishop's gesture in Adolph's portrait fairly easily. It was in fact an adlocutio, a widespread rhetorical gesture signifying either greeting and welcome, or clemency and benevolence, or both elements together.17 However, while with Troyer's portrait the function of this gesture was clear at first glance (the painting "took the place of" the absent Bishop in the feudal court hall), in the portrait of Maximilian Hamilton the same feature, because of its ambiguity, became a motif for further visual interpretation.

  2. And here we finally come to the crux of our problem. Naturally, Adolph's unusual approach to the portrait of Maximilian Hamilton did not come from nowhere, but was the result of searching for a new concept of the portrait as a modern artistic genre in the Enlightenment period. In other words: there is no doubt that the work we are looking at reacted to the new critical and intellectual evaluation of portraiture, not from the viewpoint of its traditional role in a ceremonial setting, but from the position of taste as the new criterion for assessment among the cultivated public. The painter from Mikulov was a direct witness of and participant in this search during his stay in Great Britain in the 1750s and 1760s, when he is said to have been granted his title of painter to the royal court for his equestrian portrait of the later King George III in 1755.18 And Franz Adolph of Freenthal, in creating his work in Kroměříž, was fully in line with the reforming attempts of British portraitists in combining the painting of the Bishop with the archetype of a Roman statesman or publicly active citizen, as conceived of in classical Roman sculpture.