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Home HRArt and auctions After 250 years, a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy honours Angelica Kauffman

After 250 years, a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy honours Angelica Kauffman

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Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting.

After 250 years, a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy honours Angelica Kauffman

By James Brewer

In the mid-18th century Angelica Kauffman, the accomplished young daughter of a middle-class family, faced a dilemma over which career to pursue.

Her mother Cleophea was a singer, and her father Joseph Johann a painter, so Angelica could happily have followed in the footsteps of either. She loved singing and playing the clavichord but made a choice she presumably never regretted. Unusually for a woman at the time, she resolved to become a full-time painter and went on to establish a hugely successful career in Britain and throughout Europe.

Self-portrait in the Traditional Costume of the Bregenz Forest.

Later in life, in her fifties, she perhaps enjoyed looking back at her youthful predicament and produced an outstanding picture of her wavering self. In Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting, a young woman in an immaculate white dress stands charmed between the personifications of music and of painting.

In an engrossing exhibition, the Royal Academy in London is joyfully celebrating the life and work of Angelica Kauffman, one of its first Academicians whose artistic genre fell out of fashion for two centuries, leaving her years of glory as a historical footnote.

Ulysses on the Island of Circe.

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) was born in Chur, an alpine city by the Rhine in Switzerland, but grew up in Schwarzenberg, Austria, from where her family originated. As the family moved about, Angelica trained as both a musician and a painter. In Rome, Bologna, and Venice, she studied the Old Masters, mixed with artists and scholars, and met foreigners making the Grand Tour. She relocated to London in 1766 where for 15 years she enjoyed fame, fortune, and an influential circle of male and female patrons. Her prestige was such that she was one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Arts. Now that very institution has given over a goodly amount of gallery space to honour again her achievements, after she “waited” for a quarter of a century for such an accolade.

The exhibition was initiated in Düsseldorf in 2020 and was due to open immediately afterwards in London, but the pandemic postponed the RA’s renewed gesture of reverence.

Self-Portrait in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry.

The current secretary and chief executive of the RA, Axel Rüger, hailed Angelica as “one of the most celebrated artists of her day” and said she had been known as “one of the most elegant and erudite women in Europe.”

Curator Bettina Baumgärtel, head of the department of painting at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf and head of the Angelica Kauffman Research Project, concurred that she was considered “the most cultivated woman in Europe.” The curator recounted that when the Royal Academy was established in 1768, Angelica was one of only two women founding members (the other was Mary Moser who was just 24 and noted for her flower and history paintings) but “more than 250 years had to pass before Angelica was finally honoured with a solo exhibition.”

The curator underlined that Angelica’s extraordinary talent encompassed interior design and arts and crafts. Prominent clients included Queen Charlotte, wife of George III of England, and other royalty.  She gained her fortune entirely through her own labour, which was then exceptional for a middle-class woman. Demand for her output was so strong that as one contemporary put it, “the whole world is Angelica mad.”

Muses of Tragedy and Comedy.

Ms Baumgärtel said that Angelica was living proof that a woman could have a career as an artist in a male-dominated society and was a role model for generations of female artists. Aware of her status as a successful female painter, she made numerous self-portraits to publicise her work.

History paintings – acquitted from a women’s perspective – were her way of observing the world, and on these she bestowed a lyrical quality. With portraits, which were a main source of her income, the exhibition in total features more than 30 artworks including international loans, many of which have never been seen in the UK. Her career is traced from child prodigy to her election at the age of just 23 as a member of Rome’s Accademia di San Luca, to her role as Royal Academician in London, and her ascendancy to celebrity status.

In self-portraits, her psyche – determined yet graceful – is evident, as she appears in different likenesses including Self-portrait in the Traditional Costume of the Bregenz Forest from 1781, and Self-portrait in All-antica Dress of 1787, a work she presented to the Grand Duke of Tuscany for his renowned gallery of artists’ self-portraits.

In her narratives, including her Greek themes, women are at the centre of the action. Angelica was fascinated by The Odyssey, Homer’s story of the roving hero Odysseus (Ulysses in the Roman interpretation). In Ulysses on the Island of Circe (1793), the enchantress Circe Is shown as sympathetic to Odysseus, keeping discreetly in reserve the power represented by her magic wand. She feels that there was obviously much more to Circe, who is vilified by other artists, than in the usual mythical telling. On his way back to Ithaca, the military chief had landed on Circe’s remote island of Aeaea, but thanks to the god Hermes, Odysseus could drink a potion that protected him from her spell.

Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy.

Among Angelica’s historical and mythical female protagonists are Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Anthony, from around 1769-70, Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus pf 1774 and Calypso Abandoned by Odysseus of 1775-78.

Her portraiture wowed the great and good. Painted when she was just 22 years old, her Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1764 (Kunsthaus Zurich), won great praise including from the sitter for its exceptional likeness.  Winckelmann (1717-1768) was a German archaeologist and art historian, expert on Greek and Roman antiquity, and superintendent of antiquities in Rome. She impressed the noted scholar with her charm, her singing and her command of languages.

In Venice, Lady Wentworth, the wife of the German ambassador, invited Angelica to accompany her to London, where she became popular with high-ranking personalities. One of her first works was a portrait in an informal pose of David Garrick, the actor, playwright, and theatre manager, and she was commissioned to paint Princess Augusta, sister of George III, and Queen Charlotte.

Angelica soon became friends with the leading artist Joshua Reynolds, a keen advocate of training students in history painting.  The friendship was reflected in the portraits they painted of each other. She was among those who signed a petition to the King requesting him to approve the establishment of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which was born as the Royal Academy of Arts in December1768 with Sir Joshua as its first president.

She was among the 36 Founder Members (along with one other woman, Mary Moser) of the institution, but the patriarchy at its outset is reflected by Johan Zoffany’s group portrait of The Academicians of the Royal Academy. The subjects are all male. With the presence of the two women members reduced to incidental portraits on the wall. The picture is set in the Life Room, where women were forbidden because models for the students would pose déshabillé.

Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Anthony.

Although it was unusual for a woman to be commissioned for ceiling paintings, four were ordered for 1778-80 from Angelica for Somerset House, the first home of the Royal Academy. Two are shown in the current exhibition, female figures representing Design, and Composition. The others are Invention, and Colour. These oval paintings are usually on display in the foyer of Burlington House, the longstanding home of the Academy.

In one of his inaugural lectures, Seven Discourses on Art, Reynolds supported the ambition to uphold “that one great idea which gives to painting its true dignity, that entitles it to the name of a Liberal Art, and ranks it as a sister of poetry.” This surely appealed to Angelica. Her Self-Portrait in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry shows Design (Angelica, dressed in white, rather than the traditional male representation) alert for the words and wisdom of Poetry. She endorsed Sir Joshua’s advocacy of imitation to enrich the creative process, as shown in a graphite sketch Self-Portrait as Imitatio , where a young woman at her desk prepares her text or drawing.

At the height of her career in 1781, Angelica left London to settle in Rome. Her studio near the Spanish Steps became a magnet for the cultural elite including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who said she worked harder and accomplished more than any artist he knew. Over the course of a year, Goethe, impressed by “her enormous feeling for everything that is beautiful, true and tender,” accompanied Angelica to galleries, churches, and palaces.

She was popular among women who wanted themselves portrayed, which resulted among others in Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy in 1791. Lady Hamilton had risen from humble beginnings in northern England to gain fame from stage performances of “attitudes,” that is, miming classical figures and scenes from history and literature. She became the mistress of Sir William Hamilton, whom she married, followed by an affair with Admiral Horatio Nelson from 1798, after he went to Naples to recover from an injury received in battle.

Bettina Baumgärtel, curator.

Angelica continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy after her return to Rome. The “eternal city” was where she painted Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting, which combines portraiture with history painting. The composition, on a grand scale, recalls Hercules at the crossroads choosing between virtue and pleasure. Of the sister arts, Angelica makes clear her wistful fondness for the red-robed Music, grasping that the hand of that muse, while reaching for the palette presented by Art who is clad in blue with a red sash.

There were two upsetting episodes in Angelica’s life. Although she had many suitors, in 1767 she was tricked into marrying a bigamist and fraudster who posed as a Swedish count. The couple eventually separated, and after the death of the swindler she happily married Antonio Zucchi (1728-1795), a Venetian painter and designer living in England.

In 1775 she demanded the Royal Academy remove an offensive and misogynistic picture called The Conjurer by the Academician Nathaniel Hone which satirised Reynolds and included a nude caricature of artists including Kauffman. She threatened to resign from the Academy and got her way.

Royal Academy’s Axel Rüger with curator Bettina Baumgärtel.

Movingly, the 2024 showcase for a woman rightly feted throughout her life concludes with her 1796 religious work Christ and the Samaritan Woman, one of two canvases carried in procession to her tomb in San Andrea delle Fratte at her thronged funeral, which was organised by her friend, the sculptor Antonio Canova.  A bust of the artist, sculpted by her cousin Johann Peter Kauffmann, was placed in the Pantheon, beside that of Raphael.

This exhibition underlines that there is a place in the present for the past, certainly for a heroine of Angelica’s stamp with a clear moral compass.

It is curated by Bettina Baumgärtel and Per Rumberg, Jacob Rothschild head of the curatorial department at the National Gallery, London, with Annette Wickham, curator of works on paper at the Royal Academy.

Captions in detail:

Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794. Oil on canvas, National Trust Collections (Nostell Priory, The St Oswald Collection). Purchased by private treaty with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund 2002. Photo: © National Trust Images/John Hammond.

Self-portrait in the Traditional Costume of the Bregenz Forest, 1781. Oil on canvas. Innsbruck, TLM, Ältere kunstgeschichtliche Sammlung, inv. Gem 301. Photo: Innsbruck, Tiroler Landesmuseen.

Ulysses on the Island of Circe, 1793.Oil on canvas. Loan from the Barrett Swiss Collection in memory of Nona Barrett.

Self-Portrait in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry, 1782. Oil on canvas. English Heritage, The Iveagh Bequest (Kenwood, London).

Portraits of Domenica Morghen and Maddalena Volpato as Muses of Tragedy and Comedy, 1791. Oil on canvas. National Museum in Warsaw MNW. Photo © Collection of National Museum in Warsaw. Photo: Piotr Ligier.

Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy, 1791. Oil on canvas. (Private Collection)

Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Anthony, c 1765. Oil on canvas. The Burghley House Collection. Photo © The Burghley House Collection.

Angelica Kauffman, the exhibition, is at the Royal Academy, London, until June 30, 2024.

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