Friday, July 26, 2013

Cornelia Presenting Her Children, the Gracchi, as Her Treasures, by Angelica Kauffman, 1785

Another notable depiction of motherhood by Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807), one of two women who belonged to the Royal Academy at its inception.  The next female members would join 115 years later.

Ever the neoclassicist, Kaffman once again goes to the ancient world with Cornelia Presenting Her Children, the Gracchi, as Her Treasures, painted in 1785.  This large-scale painting illuminates the importance of motherhood on the course of history.  Cornelia Africana, the daughter of the general Scipio Africanus, was a Roman matron who exemplified the virtues of modesty, chastity, and honor. Her family was part of Roman high society, and she was an important social figure.  She is remembered by history as the mother of two sons with an enduring political legacy. Her sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who are often referred to as the Gracchi, were politicians in the 2nd century BC. They attempted to pass land reform and other progressive measures to ease the hardships of the lower classes, effectively attempting to make the Roman Republic more democratic. Both were assassinated during their tenures as tribunes by their peers in the patrician class for their liberal sentiments.

In this picture, Cornelia is talking with another society matron who is showing off her jewels.  Cornelia, however, shows jewels of quite another type:  her two sons, the Gracchi.  These are her greatest treasures; indeed, Cornelia was an important behind-the-scenes player in their eventual political ascendancy.

This is a subtly colored work, filled with deeply felt sentiment.  Neoclassical work can often feel cold or lacking in emotional vitality, but here is a picture filled with simple humanity.  Perhaps the most priceless element of the picture is the expression on the face of the anonymous matron.  You mean, these pearls aren’t better, she seems to ask.

Fortunately, Kauffman had the artistic virtuosity to realize such a subtle emotional moment.  Look at the expressions on Cornelia, as well as those of her children – they look alike.  Not only that, but Cornelia uses nearly the same expression with her hand used in another picture, Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting, where Kauffman is also indicating the more important choice.

A remarkable work.

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