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13 March 2024

When Europe went Angelica Kauffman mad

How the first female painter admitted into the Royal Academy became one of the great celebrities of her age.

By Michael Prodger

Angelica Kauffman is no longer a hallowed name but she once was. In her lifetime she was a child prodigy; famous across Europe (“the whole world is Angelica-mad”, exclaimed one contemporary); she was one of only two female members of the Royal Academy (RA) at its foundation in 1768 (the other was Mary Moser); she was the only 18th-century female painter commissioned to paint a ceiling; and at her death, her funeral service – organised by the sculptor Antonio Canova – was modelled on that of Raphael.  

In a letter to the president of the RA Benjamin West, the architect Joseph Bonomi related how “the great woman” had died in Rome “after about 20 days confinement in bed, with the greatest tranquillity of spirit, always present to herself…” She was, he reported, “perfectly resigned” and “courageously met the death of the Righteous”. In this she emulated the subjects of many of her paintings, which depicted the heroic, stoic and admirable actions of figures, more often than not women, from the classical past.

The manner of her death was not the only time Kauffman demonstrated her understanding of the exemplum virtutis – virtuous example – that underlay much neoclassical art. One of the earliest scandals to hit the RA came in 1775 when the Irish painter Nathaniel Hone sent a picture called The Conjuror for show at the annual summer exhibition. The painting was a complex attack on the first president of the RA, Joshua Reynolds, who was a close friend of Kauffman’s – more than just a friend, according to gossip.

In the work, Hone took aim at Reynolds’ insistence that the old masters were the only proper guide for modern painters, a creed that Kauffman wholeheartedly subscribed to. The picture showed an elderly man, based on Reynolds’ favourite model, conjuring up a stream of Renaissance and classical prints with his wand. Not only did Hone include a figure from Kauffman’s painting Hope draped with a hint of suggestiveness across the conjuror’s legs but in the background he painted a group of naked figures cavorting in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. Both Reynolds and Kauffman were at that moment planning decorations for the cathedral. One of the figures showed a woman wearing only black stockings, which Kauffman interpreted as a caricature of herself.

She would not stand for this low sexual insult and complained to the RA Council, asking that the painting be removed to demonstrate “a Respect to the Sex which it is their glory to support”. When her request was palmed off she threatened to resign and thus make the whole affair public, and it was only then that Hone was instructed to take down his picture. Kauffman stood up for herself but Hone had his revenge when he made the painting the centrepiece of a solo exhibition of his work, ensuring that the fuss was given added oxygen.

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Some of the paintings that won her such renown – and made her a figure worthy of Hone’s snide mockery – are now on display at the Royal Academy. While Kauffman’s subject matter, especially her history paintings, does not chime with the mood of our times – too decorous, too tasteful, too moral, and based on sources that are no longer familiar – she was in many ways a very modern artist, especially in her control of her image.

She was a painter who actively used her gender as a way of promoting herself. Her many self-portraits not only stress her femininity – her soulful face was a useful tool in the age of sensibility – but her status as an artist: in some she holds a pencil, in others she turns to allegory, such as featuring herself in the guise of Design being inspired by Poetry.

History painting – meaning scenes from antiquity, the Bible, and the literary past – was in the 18th century the highest genre in art and Kauffman set about conquering it, not least to prove herself the equal of any male artist. It accounts for two-thirds of her paintings, with portraiture, a lower form, providing her with both income and contacts. However, she made a speciality of painting history from a female perspective – figures such as Dido, Circe and Sappho – and responded to the masculine and muscular histories of Jacques-Louis David with emotional ensembles such as Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi and Julia, Wife of Pompey, Fainting (both 1785), as well as Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Antony (circa 1769-70).

Such works secured her international fame. Indeed, although she was born in Switzerland in 1741 she travelled extensively in Italy before spending 15 years in Britain and Ireland from 1766 to 1781. She then moved to Rome where she lived until her death in 1807. She spoke five languages but claimed no nationality: “My fatherland is every inhabited world,” she said. But in Rome, as in London, her home attracted a polyglot gathering of admirers and gawpers. Goethe was one of her many acolytes: “Her eye is so highly trained and her technical knowledge of art so great,” he wrote. “She also has enormous feeling for everything that is beautiful, true and tender.”

Prints after her works helped spread her fame and she accrued a lofty roster of patrons: the British royal family, Catherine the Great of Russia, the Bourbons in Naples, Stanislaus III Poniatowski of Poland, and the Austrian emperor Joseph II among them.

If, in her history paintings, Kauffman reversed the norm by making women the central characters, even endowing them with the heroism that was usually the preserve of men, as in Queen Eleanor Sucking the Venom Out of the Wound of Her Husband, King Edward I (1776), she was an innovator in portraiture too. She pioneered “attitude” portraits showing women striking poses or adopting classical personae: Emma Hamilton and the dancer and poet Teresa Bandettini as Muses, Queen Charlotte awakening the Genius of Fine Arts (posed by the future George IV) or, in a self-portrait for the Duke of Tuscany, herself dressed all’antica as a Vestal Virgin.

She painted more orthodox portraits too, of Joshua Reynolds, the actor David Garrick and the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, for example, and they too have a compelling liveliness. Portraiture may have been a means to an end, a calling card and a money-generator, but if she tired of it, as Gainsborough did, she didn’t let it show. Portraiture helped her become one of the wealthiest non-aristocratic women of the time and she was unusual too in that even after she married the painter Antonio Zucchi in 1781, she kept control of her own finances (her first marriage, to a confidence trickster, was short-lived).

What this choice exhibition shows first and foremost has nothing to do with gender: Kauffman was a proper painter. There is an unexpected fluidity to her brushwork and a refined colouristic sense. There is less reliance on line than many neoclassical painters and also a lightly worn frame of reference that encompasses painters from Lorenzo Lotto and Parmigianino to Charles Le Brun. Her friend Winckelmann counselled “noble simplicity and calm grandeur”, but she could never bring herself to be severe in her painting.

In 1794, Kauffman painted a monumental allegorical Self-portrait at the Crossroads Between the Arts of Music and Painting. It made reference both to the myth of the Judgement of Hercules, when the hero had to choose between vice and virtue, and to her own past. As a child she had been a skilled singer and clavichord player and in her teens had to decide which path to follow. This exhibition, the first time in 250 years that she has had a solo show at the RA, is belated confirmation that she made the right choice.

Angelica Kauffman
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1
Runs until 30 June

[See also: Rubens and body positivity]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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