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Portraits of the Artist: Angelica Kauffmann

In Artist Profile on August 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm

The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-1772. Johann Zoffany (1733/4-1810). Oil on canvas, 101.1 x 147.5 cm. The Royal Collection, Painted for George III, RCIN 400747.

Angelica Kauffmann was an accomplished artist in her own right.  As a founding member of the Royal Academy, she cultivated a uniquely feminine style that was both scorned and revered.  Yet open a text covering the Academy, and you’re likely to find a paragraph or two on the artist.  Despite her success, wealth, patronage, and connections in life, Angelica Kauffmann was largely forgotten after her death in 1807.  However, through a close reexamination of the artist’s career and work, one discovers a deeper talent than what history texts gloss over.  By analyzing two works by male contemporaneous artists and one of her own self-portraits, I will reconstruct the misinformed identity of Angelica Kauffmann.  Contrary to most scholarship on the subject, I will prove how her unique education, style, and patronage shaped her into a female master to be recognized as such.

Johann Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy portrays the founding members of Britain’s Royal Academy of Art.  Suggested to be a “pastiche of the most famous intellectual conversation in art, Raphael’s School of Athens,” Zoffanny depicts what contemporary society would have regarded as properly trained, master artists.[1]  Here, fine gentlemen are involved in an intellectual discussion of art and its processes, depicted as “a group of artists who dress, talk and think like other men.”[2]  On the right wall hangs a portrait of our artist, Angelica Kauffmann; on the edge of the canvas is Mary Moser, the other female member of the Royal Academy.  Shown in a classical portrait bust, she holds an emotionless, disinterested gaze.  Immediately, viewers are presented with a vision of ‘proper’ artists, the men, and the outsiders Kauffmann and Moser who are refused access to the intimate, intellectual circles of the Academy.  A “literal marginalization […] their participation in art is aberrant and had to be managed carefully in order not to upset the deeper social order.”[3]  It’s fairly obvious then, that these women were seen as less intelligent, less capable of creation, and less included simply because of their gender.

The social order of women and men was analogous to that of the private and public.  Women were expected to remain at home with the family while men were the authoritative figures both in and out of the home.  The exclusion of Kauffmann and Moser was not seen as a dramatic gesture, but a rather necessary one to maintain their ‘innocence’.  The intellectual currents of Zoffany’s piece suggest that the women would have no place in the discourse—women were not known or ‘capable’ of possessing the intellect and talents of men.  Once more, Jean-Jacques Rousseau proliferated the division between sexes as women were meant for the private sphere, versus men who were designed to be the forerunners of public, official life. In fact, the most obvious division between the women and men was their formal training.  The women were not permitted to draw the live nude, as it was entirely improper.  As a consequence, their institutional training was limited in comparison to the ‘gentlemen’ of the Royal Academy.  Only the gentleman, “the person of good education and natural refinement, could have taste.”[4]  Yet these domains were changing rapidly; the greater influence of female monarchs as well as the mobilization of salons for women began to tip the scale of gender relations.  This fluctuation gave female artists like Kauffmann a larger domain to participate outside of the traditional home, private spheres that society had designated.[5]

Naturally, most History texts do not account for the destruction of gendered social boundaries especially in relation to the female members of the Royal Academy.  However, Angelica Kauffmann’s art did find the public, though it has only recently been discussed.  Her involvement in the official affairs of the Royal Academy may have been limited, but in her own right, she made a career for herself using alternative means of training and practice.

She was known for her femininity, softness figures, and vibrant colors—hardly comparable to the bold, masculine tradition of painting set in stone by Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Even today, many scholars believe the work of women in the 18th century to be less accomplished than their male counterparts, claiming that “there is such a tremendous variation in the outlook on life of men and women,” accounting for the difference in skill and content.[6]  However, the advantagesof being a woman would soon unfold for Kauffmann.  Her widely noted feminine charms and social graces were present both in person and in her canvases.  It was this strong sense of femininity that ultimately led her to success.  She was not ashamed of her womanhood, but rather embraced it and its likeness in her work.

Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, 1778. Richard Samuel (1770-1786). Oil on canvas, 52 in. x 61 in. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4905.

The second portrait featuring Kauffmann has been called rather “unusual” for both its content and meaning; Richard Samuel’s Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple Apollo from 1778 features an entirely different depiction of Kauffmann as compared to Zoffany.  Seated at her easel is Kauffmann, depicted as a Muse of Classical Antiquity.[7]  No other canvas in this time period celebrates women to such a large extent.  Surrounding the artist are eight other contemporary creative women gathered in the ‘Temple of Apollo”.  “They are thus presented as members of a modern and female pantheon of arts and letters.”[8]

However different the previous work by Zoffany may be in comparison, the two pieces share one thing in common: the glorification of the artist collective.  In Zoffany’s piece, we find a group of celebrated men discussing the intellectual and fine aspects of art.  Here, Samuel portrays an exclusive group of nine women as ‘Muses’, the supreme beings personifying the arts.  Both groups are sacredly exclusive and represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement.  Yet in Samuel’s piece, the women retain their charm and femininity, qualities that were generally not associated with achievement.  He attains this fine balance between meriting success and maintaining femininity through the antiquarian poses of the figures.  Kauffmann, situated at an easel, “dressed in generic painter’s robes […] refers to a tradition of portraits of (male) artists dating back to the renaissance.”  While simultaneously, “the close focus, dramatic colors and sidelong glace” of the artist suggests the modesty and prudence associated with femininity.[9]  This dualism of both femininity and artistic accomplishment (traditionally associated with men) is what makes Samuel’s canvas so “unusual”.

Perhaps the most valuable information one can draw from this piece is the strong sense of identity given to the figure identified as Kauffmann.  Compared to small visage of identity in Zoffany’s piece, here Kauffmann holds her own palette, suggesting a distinct ability of her own.  Recent scholarship has recognized that Kauffmann was not just a product of her male counterparts’ successes, but she “also acted as a disseminator of stylistic concepts and influences.”[10]  She actively influenced the artists around her—remaining unyielding in her feminine identity and style.  Therefore, Samuel’s allegory is not incorrect in assimilating Kauffmann with a Muse of Painting.  She was iconic in her own right, just as Samuel depicts her:  “The romantic vision of the female muse suggested that her role was to inspire the solitary genius…[but], like the original Muses of Antiquity, [they were] practitioners: well-known, educated and talented inhabitants of the artistic world.”[11]

According to the National Portrait Gallery, Samuel’s piece would have “encouraged modern British women to identity with [the Muses].”  As such, this piece offered a drastically different vision of femininity in the 18th century as well as the role of female artists and their influence on the women of Britain.  Kauffmann’s membership in the Royal Academy far from defined her success as an artist, for her humble beginnings may have contributed to her ultimate triumph in cultivating and embracing a new, feminine style.

Germany’s first female medical doctor Dorothea Christina Leporin said in 1742: “If one admits that the female sex is capable of learning then one must also admit that it has received a calling to go with it.”  In the case of Angelica Kauffmann, her aptitude for the arts propelled her into the spotlight at a young age.  Known as a child prodigy, Kauffmann’s childhood in Italy involved science, music, poetry, and the fine arts.  “Sensible to the obstacles opposed to a thorough study of drawing and anatomy in the case of females, [her father] directed Angelica’s faculties to the study of color.”[12]  Soon after, she received commissions from clergymen, noble households, and even rich patrons of the arts such as the Bishop of Como.  Yet none of that garnered her respect in the Royal Academy.  What developed was a style, uniquely her own, formed by the influences of her training in Italy and her observation of her contemporaries in England.

Without the approval of the Royal Academy and Reynolds’s “Grand Manner”, her style was regarded as below that of the gentlemen.  Yet her work did not go unnoticed.  Her “charm” and “delicacy” seemed to pour out of her canvases, “forms are softer, her gestures and moods gentler.”[13]  What Kauffmann was able to create for herself, was a distinctly feminine style.  For this she was both criticized and revered.  As the Academy saw it as underdeveloped, Royal Matrons found it distinctly accurate and familiar.  It was this Royal “matronage” that sustained Kauffmann’s career and enabled her style to remain distinctly her own.

The notion of a ‘female’ aesthetic was catching on in Kauffmann’s time.  Queen Charlotte, Maria Carolina of Naples, Marie Antoinette of France, and Maria Theresa of Austria were all notable patrons of Kauffmann and artists of her kind.  Female artists “proved especially adept at portraying a type of femininity that met the public and private needs of her female sponsors,” as they too experienced the pressures of a male dominated society.[14]  These noblewomen, concerned with their public images in relation to their reputations, relied on artists like Kauffmann to construct their public identities in a time of societal change.  Both artists and royalty felt the pressures of existing within predominately masculine fields—this, inevitably, lead to the formation of a distinct, feminine tradition of painting.  Thus, Kauffmann’s ‘unacceptable’ academic style came into good use as both artists and their patrons felt “united in their belief that femininity was a subject for women artists to define.”[15]

Artist in the Character of Design, Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry, 1782. Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807)

Culminating in her self-portrait as the allegory of design, Kauffmann proves her grasp of an individual, feminine style.  In Artist in the Character of Design, Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry  from 1782, Kauffmann displays herself as a Muse-figure in the presence of Poetry.  Not only does this piece offer the sweet, soft, feminine charm that critics noted in her pieces, it also shows her as a strong and unwavering as her gaze is directed at the viewer.  Here, Kauffmann expresses her talent both in physical composition and in allegory (as Design) as well as her privileged inspiration of poetry as the Muse whispers directly into her ear.

Artist in the Character of Design is largely reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she states: “…they become free by being enable to earn their own subsistence, independent of men.”[16]  In this canvas, Kauffmann is neither surrounded by peers with which to align herself; nor does she flaunt her success or membership in an exclusive art circle.  Instead she boldly gazes at viewers, seated next to Poetry, calling herself Design.  She sits in a Classical landscape, evoking the scenes of great masters and their grand portraits.  Embodied in this self-portrait are the characteristics of a successful artist—inspiration, confidence, accomplishment, and creativity.  It is here that one witnesses her departure from the man’s world of academic painting, and establishes herself as equally talented and inspired.  Artist in the Character of Design grips viewers with conviction as the artist greets us directly with her eyes.  Her femininity is not masked, but clearly present.  It is this self-awareness and unbridled honestly that makes Angelica Kauffmann such a wonderful representative of art.

Angelica Kauffmann reached the ranks of a great artist within her time, but has rarely been given credit for doing so.  Despite the choking grip of the Royal Academy’s regulations, she found patronage and produced approximately 1,500 oil paintings, drawings, and prints.[17]  Her work ethic and extraordinary fruits of labor will not go unnoticed.  Kauffmann should be recognized as a pioneering female artist along side Vigée-Lebrun, Morisot, Cassatt and others.  It’s time history reflected a bit upon itself—women in the arts were not just delicate household wives, but founders of an new tradition of art: the feminine aesthetic.


[1] The Royal Collection, “The Academicians of the Royal Academy”

[2] The Royal Collection

[3] Carolyn Korsmeyer, Gender and Aesthetics: an introduction (London: Routledge, 2004), 77

[4] William Vaughan, British Painting: The Golden Age (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 102

[5] Heidi A. Strobel, “Royal ‘Matronage’ of Women Artists in the Late-18th Century,” Woman’s Art Journal (2006): 3

[6] Madlyn Millner Kahr, “Women as Artists and ‘Women’s Art’,” Woman’s Art Journal (1983): 29

[7] This figure has been dually identified as Mary Moser, the only other female member of the Royal Academy along side Kauffmann.

[8] The National Portrait Gallery, “Celebrating Modern Muses”

[9] The National Portrait Gallery

[10] David Irwin, “Angelica Kauffmann and Her Times,” The Burlington Magazine (1968): 534

[11] Sian Reynolds, “Mistresses of Creation: Women as producers and consumers of art since 1700,” in The Routledge History of Women in Europe Since 1700, ed. Deborah Simonton, (London: Routledge, 2006): 343

[12] “Poor Angelica,” The Crayon (1855): 212

[13] Irwin (1968): 534-537

[14] Strobel (2006): 3

[15] Strobel (2006): 7

[16] Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792

[17] Wendy Wasyng Roworth, “Documenting Angelica Kauffman’s Life and Art,” Eighteenth Century Studies (2004): 478

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