I was recently taken to task by New York arts advocate Clarissa Crabtree for the lack of women artists covered in The Jade Sphinx. The simple – and lamentable – fact is that women, by and large, were not accorded opportunities to pursue artistic careers until the Modern Age. There were exceptions, of course, and among them was Swiss-Austrian Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman.
Kauffman (1741 – 1807) was born in Switzerland, but grew up in Austria where her family originated; her father, Joseph Johann Kauffman, was a painter. He taught her the fundamentals of drawing and painting, while her mother taught young Angelica several languages. She also was a skilled musician, and the young woman was torn between which art was to be her master.
However, her precocity in painting was immense, and Angelica was selling work and professionally painting portraits while still an adolescent. When only 13 years old, Angelica went with her father to Milan, Rome, Bologna and Venice where, like the young Mozart and his music, she was displayed as a prodigy with the brush. She spoke French, English and Italian (as well as German) and this facility with language allowed her to make a lucrative living painting portraits of visitors to Rome.
She was introduced to Lady Wentworth, an English aristocrat, while in Venice, and returned with her to the UK. There she painted the portrait of celebrated actor David Garrick (1771-1779) and became something of a society painter. She also befriended painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), and worked with him to create the Royal Academy. She was only one of two women (the other being Mary Moser, 1744-1819) to have R. A. after her name – however, her friendship with Reynolds and membership in the RA was not without dissent. Painter Nathaniel Hone included a nude caricature of Kauffman in his satirical 1775 painting The Conjurer – but later painted it out. The picture was not accepted by the Academy.
Kauffman was an annual exhibitor with the Royal Academy from 1769 until 1782, and in 1773 she was appointed by the Academy with others to decorate St Paul's Cathedral. The work would never be completed.
Upon the death of Kauffman’s first husband (they were separated – almost as much of a scandal as a lady painter!), she married Antonio Zucchi (1728–1795), a Venetian artist then living in the UK. She became part of the social and artistic scene of Venice, and continued to contribute to the Royal Academy until 1797. When she died in Rome in 1807, the entire Academy of St Luke followed her body to her tomb in Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, carrying two of her best pictures in the parade.
Today we look at Kauffman’s self-portrait from 1787. It is a stunning work. Kauffman does not paint herself as a society lady or a great beauty (though she is quite lovely), but, rather, as a working artist, complete with portfolio and drawing implement. Her identification with her craft is clear.
Notice the exquisite handling of the images on the highly-cinched belt, which includes classical figures and clearly indicates her Italian sympathies. Moreover, the landscape over her shoulder is clearly that of Italy, rather than England, Switzerland or Austria.
She uses a great deal of transparent white to create the gauzy quality of her gown, and she depicts her oddly masculine hands with a deft touch. Her hair is plaited atop her head and adorned with a simple ribbon.
One of the more interesting questions is – how did she do this picture? In most self-portraits, the artist is looking at the viewer, mainly because the artist was – at the time – looking at a mirror. But here, Kauffman has turned to the side – a remarkable act of virtuosity.
More Kauffman tomorrow.