'The whole world in Angelicamad’ wrote the Danish Ambassador in London in 1781. He was speaking not of the latest actress or the newest society beauty but of a ‘paintress’ who was a founding member of the London Royal Academy of Arts and the portraitist of celebrities of Court, society and stage.
Maria Anna Angelika Kauffmann or Angelica Kauffman, her later signature of choice, was born in Chur, Switzerland in 1741. She was the only child of the Austrian painter and muralist Joseph Johann Kauffmann whose assistant she became at an early age, travelling with him to Switzerland, Austria and Italy, where she became a member of the Academies of Bologna, Florence, Rome and Venice. A gifted linguist and musician, both beautiful and charming, she was soon in demand among British visitors to Rome. In 1765 she moved to England and soon established herself both in artistic and society circles.
In 1769, at the age of twenty-eight, she was one of only two women among the founding members of the Royal Academy. When Zoffany later came to paint his portrait of The Academicians of the Royal Academy, he grouped his subjects in a studio, including in the composition two male models, one nude and the other almost nude. To avoid any hint of impropriety, Angelica and her sister-member Mary Moser were shown not standing among their male peers but as portraits high on the wall of the studio. (It would take 168 years for another woman to be admitted to the Academy with the election of Dame Laura Knight in 1936.)
Although a skilled painter of portraits, Angelica regarded herself chiefly as a history painter, i.e. a painter of scenes drawn from history, literature, mythology and scripture. To succeed, the artist had to be well read in all these areas, and able to portray the human body in classical poses and dress (or lack of it), the latter requirement generally preventing women from attempting to succeed in this genre. Angelica’s earlier studies especially in Florence where she was given a separate studio in the Medici collection, enabled her to cross this divide.
I cannot but wonder whether her paintings were the inspiration for the neo-classical fashions of the early nineteenth century. Certainly, this fashion plate echoes their style.
The Roman Accademia di San Luca arranged a magnificent funeral where some of her major works were carried in procession behind the coffin and a letter describing it was read into the minutes of the Royal Academy.
I am indebted to the splendid website http://www.angelica-kauffman.com/en/akrp-home/arkp/ which provides a wealth of information about this talented and fascinating eighteenth-century artist who, despite the disadvantages attached to her gender, lived life largely on her own terms.
All images are from my private collection.