Who Was Angelica Kauffman?

LONDON — The question hanging over the Royal Academy’s survey of Swiss-born artist Angelica Kauffman, one of its founding members and, as the press release states, “one of the most acclaimed artists of the 18th Century,” is why — despite this recognition — many visitors today have never heard of her. As this display spanning her life and work evidences, she enjoyed popularity and consistent patronage as a working artist, spending time in Rome and London, where apparently one contemporary noted “the whole world is Angelicamad.” Similarly, a letter from sculptor Joseph Bonomi to the RA director, Benjamin West, describing her funeral in Rome in 1807, details how her paintings were triumphantly carried in procession, and the service was arranged by sculptor Antonio Canova. The answer may lie in artistic innovation and skill. 

It is unfortunate to Kauffman to compare her with Artemisia Gentileschi, who lived more than a century earlier and has received an explosion of attention in recent years; nonetheless, doing so may go some way to explain why, despite success in her lifetime, Kauffman has since been overlooked in art history. Putting aside the dramatic personal story that tends to underscore Gentileschi’s biography and focusing on the work itself, from a technical standpoint Kauffman is proficient, but not world-beating. She studied Renaissance and classicist work in her artist father’s studio (he is not named in the show), while Gentileschi trained under her father, the highly recognized and established Orazio. So while Gentileschi churned out truly boundary-pushing, powerhouse Baroque paintings, Kauffman studiously adapted herself to classicising history paintings a la Poussin — or, as one complimentary caption claims, she “emulated the grand ‘swagger portraits’ of Anthony Van Dyck.” 

Both artists tended to populate their paintings with female figures, and understood the power of the self-portrait and self-promotion; there are no fewer than six by Kauffman in this show, often frontally facing, in a head-and-shoulders view, and bearing the same earnest expression. While Gentileschi painted herself as an allegory of painting itself, or as the martyr St. Catherine, Kauffman’s are of a less suffering nature yet still occasionally betray her ambitions: Her 1794 “Self Portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting” reflects her early decision to pursue a painting career, having also been a promising clavichord player. She portrays herself in the guise of Hercules, evoking the myth in which he had to choose between vice and virtue. The classicist theme and monumental scale signify the introspective self-importance she attached to this period in her life. Missing from the caption is an explanation of the piece’s purpose: Was it a commission or a speculative creation?  

Kauffman clearly owed a great deal of contemporary recognition to her active social networking, and it must have helped that she spoke German, Italian, French, and English (she moved through Switzerland, Austria, and Italy with her parents as a child). Many portraits here read as a who’s who of 18th-century London society and those present on the Grand Tour circuit of Rome: the influential German art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann; the English playwright David Garrick; Lady Emma Hamilton, who famously had an affair with Lord Nelson. The captions indicate a close friendship with each, and how this bolstered her career. She befriended Joshua Reynolds upon arrival in London: “they quickly became friends and agreed to paint each other’s portraits … Kauffman’s friendship with Reynolds and good relations with Queen Charlotte helped ensure her place among the Founding Members of the Royal Academy in 1768.” In keeping, she protested Nathaniel Hone the Elder’s painting “The Conjuror” (1775), which satirized Reynolds, for a perceived reliance on the Old Masters, and Kauffman as his protege (depicted as a child at his knee and as a cavorting naked artist in the background that was eventually painted over). The show contains the transcript of a letter Kauffman wrote demanding the painting’s removal from display.

Societal norms and Royal Academy rules certainly discriminated against female success. Johan Zoffany’s portrait of Royal Academicians (1771–72) shows how women were not allowed in the Life Room, where they are shown sitting; Kauffman and fellow founder Mary Moser are reduced to representations as paintings on the wall. Kauffman’s social status more than her technical skill might have ensured her success, despite her desire to be taken seriously. The caption for the portraits Reynolds and Kauffman painted of each other suggests that “this may [have been] part of an artistic dialogue,” because her self-portrait is shown next to a bust of Minerva and her portrait of Reynolds depicts him with a bust of Michelangelo, a motif he used for his own self-portrait. This could be a fanciful connection: Grand Tour portraits often featured sitters with classicist busts; Reynolds may have simply owned or admired this bust of Michelangelo. Interestingly, while the captions show an image of Reynolds’s self-portrait, they do not include his portrait of Kauffman, despite alluding to it so carefully to imply this connection. 

Reynolds’s self-portrait does, however, convey his powerful handling of style, color, and tone compared to her chromatically limited palette and occasionally clumsy brushwork. Though Kauffman deliberately chose classicism, the highest regarded genre at the time, and found patrons for her work, picking obscure or unusual scenes to distinguish herself — such as “Ulysses on the Island of Circe” (1793) or “Armida Begs Rinaldo in Vain not to Leave Her” (1776) — it would be a stretch to call her technique anything more than derivative, sub-Poussin. The component parts have been studied and assembled, but with a lack of originality or verve.

Because Kauffman’s technicality is competent, but not remarkable, it’s unsurprising that she has not made a dent in the collective imagination beyond her own lifetime — a status shared by many male Royal Academicians as well. She should be admired for her ambition and success despite societal disadvantages toward women, as this well-meaning show makes clear. Yet one would be hard pressed to find a convincing contender among her oeuvre that would make an impact on art history.

Angelica Kauffman continues at the Royal Academy (Burlington House, London, England) through June 30. The exhibition was curated by Bettina Baumgärtel and Per Rumberg, with Annette Wickham and Rebecca Bray.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top