He loved hard work, and this forced him to abstain, as a rule, from dinner, as he drank so inordinately at that meal that he could do nothing after it. When he dined out he had to drink nothing but water, so as not to compromise his reputation for temperance. He spoke four languages, and all badly, and could not even write his native tongue with correctness; and yet he claimed perfection for his grammar and orthography, as for all his other qualities. While I was staying with him I became acquainted with some of his weak points, and endeavoured to correct them, at which he took great offence. The fellow writhed under a sense of obligation to me. Once I prevented his sending a petition to the Court, which the king would have seen, and which would have made Mengs ridiculous. In signing his name he had written 'el mas inclito', wishing to say your most humble. I pointed out to him that 'el mas inclito' meant the most illustrious, and that the Spanish for the expression he wanted was 'el mas humilde'. The proud fool was quite enraged, telling me that he knew Spanish better than I, but when the dictionary was searched he had to swallow the bitter pill of confessing himself in the wrong.
Another time I suppressed a heavy and stupid criticism of his on someone who had maintained that there were no monuments still existing of the antediluvian period. Mengs thought he would confound the author by citing the remains of the Tower of Babel--a double piece of folly, for in the first place there are no such remains, and in the second, the Tower of Babel was a post-diluvian building.
He was also largely given to the discussion of metaphysical questions, on which his knowledge was simply nil, and a favourite pursuit of his was defining beauty in the abstract, and when he was on this topic the nonsense he talked was something dreadful.
Mengs was a very passionate man, and would sometimes beat his children most cruelly. More than once I have rescued his poor sons from his furious hands. He boasted that his father, a bad Bohemian artist, had brought him up with the stick. Thus, he said, he had become a great painter, and he wished his own children to enjoy the same advantages.
He was deeply offended when he received a letter, of which the address omitted his title of chevalier, and his name, Rafael. One day I ventured to say that these things were but trifles after all, and that I had taken no offence at his omitting the chevalier on the letters he had written to me, though I was a knight of the same order as himself. He very wisely made no answer; but his objection to the omission of his baptismal name was a very ridiculous one. He said he was called Antonio after Antonio Correggio, and Rafael after Rafael da Urbino, and that those who omitted these names, or either of them, implicitly denied his possession of the qualities of both these great painters.
Once I dared to tell him that he had made a mistake in the hand of one of his figures, as the ring finger was shorter than the index. He replied sharply that it was quite right, and shewed me his hand by way of proof. I laughed, and shewed him my hand in return, saying that I was certain that my hand was made like that of all the descendants of Adam.
"Then whom do you think that I am descended from?"
"I don't know, but you are certainly not of the same species as myself."
"You mean you are not of my species; all well-made hands of men, and women too, are like mine and not like yours."
"I'll wager a hundred doubloons that you are in the wrong."
He got up, threw down brushes and palette, and rang up his servants, saying,--
"We shall see which is right."
The servants came, and on examination he found that I was right. For once in his life, he laughed and passed it off as a joke, saying,--
"I am delighted that I can boast of being unique in one particular, at all events."
Here I must note another very sensible remark of his.
He had painted a Magdalen, which was really wonderfully beautiful.