Angelica Kauffman Back

Angelica Kauffman’s role as one of the most successful female artists of the 18th century is of significant interest today and it is very fitting that as one of the two female founders of the Royal Academy of Arts in London it should display the delayed exhibition of her paintings.

Angelica Kauffman. Self-Portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting. 1749. © National Trust Images/John Hammond.

She is introduced by a series of self-portraits by which she continually promoted herself. For example, Self-Portrait in all’antica dress, 1787 (Galleria degli Uffizi) was painted for the Medici collection of artists’ self-portraits displayed in the Uffizi, Florence, and hung there next to that, considered at the time,  by Michelangelo!  She represents herself in a distinguished pose seated in a white dress with belt fastened with an antique cameo and holding a stylus and  a portfolio alluding to the personification of disegno the ‘father of all the visual arts’,  her palette and brushes beside her and framed by columns and drapery against a blue sky.

Born in 1741 in Chur, Switzerland, Angelica from a young age was both a talented musician and a painter. Choosing a career as an artist she was trained by her father, a provincial painter in Bregenz. A move to Italy provided the aspiring young artist with every opportunity to study and copy Old Masters before arriving in Florence in 1762.  Here she not only encountered Grand Tourists, who were to be her frequent patrons, but was accepted as a member of Florence’s Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. The following year she was in Rome with a visit to Naples and a commission to copy paintings in the Royal Collection of Capodimonte. There she received commissions from English tourists for portraits including David Garrick, 1764 (The Burghley House Collection). He is shown in an unusual pose seated clutching the back of a chair, reminiscent of Frans Hals, with an air of intimacy very different from Batoni’s portrait of him (Ashmolean) of the same date. Back in Rome she moved in artistic and intellectual circles and painted a portrait of  Johann Joachim Winkelmann, 1764, (Kunsthaus, Zürich)  who, with his friend Anton Rafael Mengs, would have encouraged her studies of Classical art which were essential in her pursuit of  her ambition to become a history painter for which she subsequently became well known.   Amongst her earliest attempts at a Classical subject was Penelope at her Loom, 1764, (Brighton and Hove Museum) taken from the Odyssey, an unusual choice and the composition derives from religious art.

Kauffman arrived in London in 1766 accompanying Lady Wentworth Murray wife of the British Resident in Venice. Her reputation had gone before her since her portrait of Garrick had been exhibited at the Society of Arts in London in 1765, and she soon had introductions to leaders in fashion and to the Royal Family and was much in demand for portraits. Angelica was introduced to Joshua Reynolds with whom she became a close friend and they painted each other’s portraits. Her sympathetic representation of Joshua Reynolds, 1767 (National Trust, Saltram House) shows him with a benevolent expression seated beside a table covered with books and drawings and under the gaze of a bust of Michelangelo. He was undoubtedly attracted to Angelica who had arrived in London as a ‘history’ painter which was then considered the highest form of art and one which he was seeking to promote in Britain. In 1768 The Royal Academy was founded with the aim of raising the status of British art and providing the opportunity for artists to exhibit their work in its annual exhibition. One of the most interesting pictures in the exhibition is Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72 (Royal Collection Trust) which shows the members of the Royal Academy in the studio with a male life model, Joshua Reynolds, the President, stands in the centre with his ear trumpet. One looks in vain for the two female Academicians only to find them represented by paintings on the wall. Exclusion from the male model becomes apparent in the weakness of Angelica’s depiction of figures in her history paintings whose stories were taken from of all kinds of subjects and mostly involve the role of women, such as Eleanora Sucking the Venom Out of the Wound of her Husband King Edward I, 1776 (Private Collection, Vorarlberg), and are drowned in sentimentality and lacking in any form of heroism.

In 1779 the Academy moved to the new quarters in Somerset House and Angelica’s talents were held in sufficiently high esteem for her to receive the commission to paint the four ovals depicting the four theoretical Elements of Art – Invention, Design, Composition and Colouring – for the ceiling of the new Council Chamber. She represented each, untraditionally, with a female figure. Design, 1780 (Royal Academy) is depicted drawing the Belvedere Torso in a classical setting, while Composition, 1780 (Royal Academy) is seated with dividers in her hand contemplating a game of chess against a landscape.

Her fame soon spread through reproductive prints which  became very fashionable and widely circulated in the second half of the 18th century. Thomas Burke produced a mezzotint after her portrait of Her Majesty Queen Charlotte Raising the Genius of the Fine Arts, 1772 (Royal Academy of Arts London) and he made a copy in 1787 of Self-portrait in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry, 1782 (English Heritage, Kenwood) in the new medium of stipple engraving.  She painted scenes from Shakespeare for John Boydell to be displayed in his Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall, while her designs were used in many forms of the decorative arts not least on furniture and porcelain as well as in interior decoration.

In 1781, Angelica married the Venetian painter Antonio Zucchi and moved back to Rome where her art continued to thrive with added vigour. Much in demand for portraits from an international clientele such as Michael Novosielski, 1791 (National Galleries of Scotland). Painted with great confidence, the Anglo-Polish architect is wearing a splendid blue coat, golden waistcoat, and fashionable black hat tilted at a rakish angle while, dividers in hand,  he displays his  plan of the King’s Theatre, London. Some of her portraits became increasingly theatrical such as Emma Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy, 1791 (Private Collection)  clad in the white gown of a muse, dramatically holding high a mask pushing aside a green curtain. Her history paintings as in Death of Alcestis, 1790, (Vorarlberg Museum, Bregenz) take on an added seriousness, the figures are arranged in a frieze like composition, her colours in their muted tones become more harmonious as she adapts to the current Neo-Classical style. In Rome she painted a number of religious subjects such as the simple large composition of Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1796 (Neue Pinakothek, Munich) where Christ gazes at the Samaritan Woman with his hand pointing upwards in a well-known gesture the other on his heart as she looks intently at him her arm resting on her water bucket. This painting, one of two, was carried behind her coffin at her funeral in 1807, emulating that of Raphael, before an enormous procession of mourners as described in the Letter from Joseph Bonomi to Benjamin West with annotations by Benjamin West, 21 December, 1807 (Royal Academy of Arts) and only equal to that of a celebrity today.

The exhibition closes with a large painting which harks back to the beginning of her career, Self-portrait at the Crossroads Between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794 (National Trust Collections, Nostell Priory) is inspired by the well-known subject ‘Hercules’s choice between Virtue and Vice’. Angelica portrays herself in the centre of the composition holding the hand of the allegorical figure of Music while gesturing to the palette and brushes held by Painting whose her outstretched arm points to the temple of Virtue.

Perhaps not the greatest of artists one can admire Angelica Kauffman for her intelligence and  energy in pursuing her career in a man’s world, no doubt with great charm, exploiting every opportunity that came her way, working continuously and above all responding to the times in which she lived. This modest exhibition is narrowly focussed on Angelica and her career leaving many questions still to be explored, the wider context in which she worked, her profitable relations with print publishers, the great variety of decorative arts appreciated by a wider public and not least her influence on other women artists.