by Roderick Conway Morris

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Nostell Priory, National Trust
Self-portrait at the Crossroads Between the Arts of Music and Painting
by Angelica Kauffman, 1794

Why the world went 'Angelica mad'

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 April 2024


The 18th-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder declared the artist Angelica Kauffman to be 'perhaps the most cultivated woman in Europe'.

A no less fervent champion, the poet Goethe wrote that she was an artist 'whom no other living painter can approach in taste and lightness of touch'. After she came to London, Joshua Reynolds admiringly dubbed her 'Miss Angel' and the Danish ambassador Graf Schönborn observed simply: 'The whole world is Angelica mad.'

At the height of her fame Angelica Kauffman was the most celebrated artist in Europe. In 1762, as she turned twenty-one, she was elected to the Academies of Bologna and Florence. Three years later she was inducted into Rome's Accademia di San Luca.

In 1768, along with Mary Moser, she was one of just two women among the 36 founder members of the Royal Academy in London. They were represented in Johann Zoffany's amusing 1771-72 painting of the assembled worthies preparing for a life-drawing class by two portraits on the wall (with Kauffman's on the left), since their actual presence would have been indecorous given the presence of nude male models.

Shamefully, there was no female RA again until 1922. And despite the fact that Kauffman exhibited at all the Academy's annual exhibitions for most of the rest of her life, the institution has never before given her a solo show. Now at last, more than 200 years after her death in 1807, the RA is redressing the balance with an attractive and enlightening exhibition, entitled Angelica Kauffman, curated by Bettina Baumgärtel.

Like some modern pop stars, Kauffman became so famous that she was known simply by her Christian name. This chimed nicely with the titles of the sentimental novels of the era, such as Richardson's 'Pamela' and Fanny Burney's 'Evelina'.

Like these fictional heroines Kauffman was notionally raised in innocent rustic seclusion. Her father, Joseph, was a journeyman painter from the picturesque village of Schwarzenberg in the Bregenz Forest in western Austria. He had met her mother while decorating a church in Chur, across the border in Switzerland. After Angelica was born there in 1741, the precocious artist did not visit Schwartzenberg until she was in her sixteenth year and then later for brief visits only twice.

Nevertheless, she adopted her father's village as her putative homeland, and was recorded as describing 'in adorably loving tone the customs of this simple mountain folk' and 'the painterly costumes there'. Indeed, she depicted herself at least three times in this local attire, reinforcing the embroidered story of her origins. This constituted a useful defence mechanism for a single woman embarking on a public career in the arts, and played artfully on her reputation for naturalness and unaffected grace, reinforced by her devout Catholic faith.

Kauffman drew her first pastel portrait at nine. By then it was clear that she was a prodigy and her father made great efforts both to expand her artistic education and exploit her talents. She assisted Joseph in the decoration of the parish church in Schwartzenberg in 1757. By the time she was in her late teens she was the family's primary bread-winner as a portraitist, and Italy beckoned. After spells studying and working in Milan, Parma, Bologna and Florence, she arrived in Rome in 1763.

She had already studied and copied the Italian masters of the Renaissance and Baroque and now had the chance to immerse herself in the Eternal City's antiquities. She also encountered the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose writings on Greek and Roman art were revolutionizing the field and were a major force in the birth of the Neoclassical style. Although he was some thirty years her senior, Kauffman struck up a close friendship with him and painted his portrait in 1734. At this time Kauffman embarked on her first canvases on historical, classical and mythological themes, subjects universally regarded as the highest form of painting.

But producing portraits remained her main source of income and British Grand Tourists her most eager customers. With her usual canny foresight, Kauffman had already been taking English lessons in Florence. She was soon not only fluent but writing eloquently and faultlessly in the language. In 1766, Lady Bridget Wentworth, wife of John Murray, the British Resident in Venice, persuaded Kauffman to accompany her to London. Happily for the artist, a portrait of the actor David Garrick she had painted in Naples had preceded her the year before like a calling card and received accolades when it was publicly exhibited. One of Garrick's friend, an enchanted Joshua Reynolds took Kauffman under his wing and they went on to paint each other's portraits.

Lady Wentworth supplied her with the necessary introductions to her aristocratic friends and Kauffman opened a studio in Golden Square in Soho. So much in demand was she that, according to the Irish novelist Geraldine Penrose Fitzgerald, writing under the pen name Frances A. Gerard in her lively biography of the artist of 1892: 'Golden Square was blocked with carriages.' Then one day a carriage drove up, bearing the Queen Mother, who commissioned two royal portraits. 'Never, oh never, has any painter received such a distinguished visitor,' related an exultant Kauffmann to her father in far-away Schwartenberg. 'There is nothing but applause of my works; even the papers are full of verses written in different languages, all in praise of me and my pictures.'

The adulation never waned during the entire fifteen years Kauffmann spent in Britain (including a stay in Ireland) and long outlived her return to Rome (whence she continued to dispatch works to British patrons). She came to play a unique role in the nation's art scene. As the London Chronicle wrote in 1778: 'It is surely somewhat singular that while so many male artists are employed upon portraits, landscapes and other inferior species of painting, this lady should be almost uniformly carried, by the boldness and sublimity of her genius, to venture upon historical pieces'.

Kauffman was renowned for her extraordinary productivity. Her name reached beyond the royal, aristocratic and artistic circles she frequented through the distribution of thousands of engraved prints of her works. She also did countless designs for porcelain, fans, interiors, ceilings and furniture.

When she returned to Rome in 1781, she gave as the reason the English climate and poor health of her father (who had joined her in London some years before). However, she had never really succeeded in her ambition of selling history painting on a large scale to British patrons and, as she once wrote to her father: 'Rome is ever in my thoughts'.

Ironically, although she always considered portraiture a lesser calling, she painted numerous ones of herself. She also figured in various guises in many of her history and allegorical pictures. In both cases, these played an important role in the skilful marketing of herself and her brand.

When Kauffman discovered that an early self-portrait she had left in Florence had ended up in the famous Medici Grand-Ducal collection of artists' self-portraits at the Uffizi, she made strenuous efforts to negotiate its replacement with one 'that would be less unworthy of the company of so many remarkable painters, and less unworthy of me.' She succeeded in 1787, delivering an enormous canvas of herself in classical costume, still one of the largest in the entire collection, 'Self-Portrait in all'antica Dress', which she was delighted to learn was hung next to the one of the 'divine' Michelangelo.

She also dramatized herself in another of her largest works, 'Self-Portrait Between the Arts of Music and Painting' (1794-96). Kauffman had also been a prodigy in her girlhood as a singer and instrumentalist and had considered pursuing a musical career. As the Italian writer Giovanni Gherardo de Rossi, recorded in his biography of 1811: 'Her voice was most sweet, and the expression touched the heart, her talent was astonishing'.

However, partly under the influence of a Catholic priest, who regarded the idea of a woman becoming a professional musician as even more potentially disreputable and morally hazardous than practising as an artist, she opted for painting. Her allegorical depiction of herself facing this dilemma, audaciously paralleled the ancient myth of Hercules at the Crossroads, where the hero has to decide whether to take the road of vice or virtue. It also suggestively cast her in the role of one of the Three Graces.

When Kauffman died in November 1807, Joseph Bonomi's account of her magnificent funeral at Sant'Andrea delle Fratte in Rome was read out to her fellow Academicians in London: 'The church was decorated as is customary for nobles. At ten o'clock in the morning the corpse was accompanied to the church by fifty capuchins and fifty priests. The bier was carried by some of the brotherhood, but the four corners of the pall by four young ladies properly dressed for the occasion. The four tassels were held by four Gentlemen of the Academy.'

Angelica Kauffman; 1 March - 30 June at the Royal Academy, London

First published: The Lady

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024