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Visual arts: Angelica Kauffman (Royal Academy)

03 May 2024

In a man’s world, this Swiss woman rose to the top, says Susan Gray

Photo Innsbruck, Tiroler Landesmuseen  

Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait in the Traditional Costume of the Bregenz Forest (1781), oil on canvas, on loan from the Tyrolean State Musems, Innsbruck, in Austria (Ältere kunstgeschichtliche Sammlung, inv. Gem 301.)

Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait in the Traditional Costume of the Bregenz Forest (1781), oil on canvas, on loan from the Tyrolean State Musems, Innsb...

WHEN a mob ransacked the Bavarian Chapel in Golden Square, methodically removing paintings and sacred objects to throw on a bonfire in the Gordon Riots’ first night on 2 June 1780, Angelica Kauffman may have had a too-close-for-comfort ringside seat. From her home at No. 16, the Swiss-born and devoutly Roman Catholic artist only had to look across the square to witness the flames and looting.

The rioters’ week of destruction in London was instrumental in her decision to leave the capital for Italy the following year. Settling in a palazzo in the Via Sistina, in Rome, in May 1782, Kauffman opened one of the city’s most prestigious studios, assisted by her second husband, the Venetian painter Antonio Zucchi.

Sixteen years later, when Napoleon’s troops occupied Rome, Kauffman managed to avoid looting, but her finances suffered through devaluation. She painted her last self-portrait in 1801, taking on fewer commissions through ill-health in the years up to her death in 1807.

Yet Kauffman’s work on show at the Royal Academy bears scant trace of the tumultuous times that she lived through. The curator, Bettina Baumgartel, emphasises the artist’s achievement in earning a fortune and gilded reputation through her artistic labours when women’s opportunities were so limited.

In 1768, Kauffman was one of only two women founders of the Royal Academy. Johann Zoffany’s group portrait The Academicians of the Royal Academy, completed four years later, celebrates the founding of the Royal Academy, showing the members gathered in the life-drawing room.

Kauffman and Mary Moser are present only as sketchy portraits on the wall, hovering above their male peers’ heads. It would have been immoral for the women to be in the room with the two seated male models. In the work, one model is being positioned by George Michael Moser (father of Mary), while the other, getting ready in the foreground, is down to his last stocking, discarded clothes at his feet.

Kauffman had also experienced segregation previously in Florence, given a separate studio in the Medici collection to make copies after Raphael, Rembrandt, and Guercino, since it was inappropriate for a woman artist to work in the same room as men. During the 1750s and ’60s, Kauffman studied Renaissance Old Masters and classical sculptures in Italy with her painter father, as a substitute for formal academy training.

private collectionAngelica Kauffman, Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy (1791), oil on canvas, on loan from a private collection

Early history paintings, such as Penelope at her Loom (1764), show how Kauffman applied knowledge of Renaissance and later religious painting to subjects drawn from Classical literature. Kauffman presents the popular subject of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective, as she mournfully looks away from the loom where she makes and remakes Laertes’s shroud, as a strategy to repel unwanted suitors. While the woven fabric is gossamer-thin, Penelope is heavily draped in lustrous golds and blues, reflecting light upwards to her tilted head, resting against an arm supported by the loom. White and brown Argos, lying by Penelope’s jewelled hem, has downcast brown eyes, which echo the shape and expression of those of his mistress.

From the same year, a portrait of David Garrick — at the time, Britain’s most famous playwright and actor — cemented Kauffman’s reputation ahead of her arrival in London. Garrick sat for the portrait in Naples, where Kauffman had built a reputation for painting tourists on the Grand Tour, and it was exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1765.

He is dressed in a red coat and sitting at 45°, left arm over the back of a chair, and the creases and modelling around the actor’s elbow suggest that he is within touching distance of the viewer. The close-crop focus on the head allows for subtler shading than in Penelope. The subject’s face, hands and cuffs are in full light, while the left side of his face and shoulder are in deep shadow. But the expression beneath the grey wig is unfathomable.

Kauffman was one of the first artists to exhibit scenes from early English history at the Royal Academy. Eleanora Sucking the Venom Out of the Wound of Her Husband King Edward I (1776) is the artist’s depiction of a scene from the Ninth Crusade. While in the Middle East, the future Edward I was stabbed with a dagger that was thought to be poisoned. Later, fanciful accounts credited Eleanora with sucking the poison from the wound.

In a neat, pictorial symmetry, Eleanora’s lips touch just above the crook of her husband’s arm. Supported by her hands, Edward’s arm extends to rest his fingertips in the crook of Eleanora’s arm. To the far left, helmeted soldiers support the torso of a naked corpse, while, behind the couple, two servants in pink and red look up from a laundry basket, to point at the scene of love and heroism.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1796) was carried in Kauffman’s funeral procession in Rome, 11 years after it was painted. The scene shows both figures seated, with Christ robed in deep pink, a navy cloak draping the right shoulder and left knee. The Samaritan’s arms are outstretched, one resting on the bronze pail between the figures. Her head leans towards Christ, who has one hand on his heart, and the other pointing towards the heavens.

The Samaritan’s face is Kauffman’s — the same oval framed by tendrils of brown curls seen in Self Portrait in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration (1782), and the headdress echoes Kauffman as Design (1780).

Design was one of four ceiling paintings commissioned for the Royal Academy’s Council Room, marking the high point of her career. For this high point to be commemorated in a later biblical painting, which was then chosen as an emblem of the artist’s career, demonstrates that faith was always central in Kauffman’s life, even when it was less apparent in her choice of artistic subjects.

“Angelica Kauffman” is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 30 June. Phone 020 7300 8090. www.royalacademy.org.uk

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