Thursday, July 25, 2013

Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting, by Angelica Kauffman, 1792

I must confess, I love this picture.  As noted in an earlier column, Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) was a child prodigy in both painting and music.  (Winckelmann wrote that Kauffman had a sublimely beautiful voice.)  Her prowess as a painter was formidable, and she and her father toured Europe, painting portraits for high society much as young Mozart played pianoforte for royalty. 

But the decision between painting and music was not an easy one, as can be witnessed in this 1792 self-portrait.  (Self-triptych?)  It’s fascinating; centuries before the birth of Freud, Kauffman splits her personality into three parts, including a mediating Ego.  And at this point, the decision is clear – the musician will become a painter.

Look at the figures.  Kauffman left holds a music roll and the hand of the center Kauffman: her face is both imploring and wounded.  This is the look of a lover who knows she is being left. 

Now, look at the Kauffman right; she holds easel and brush and points dramatically to the distance: get to work!  Kauffman right does not touch Kauffman center, but there is no need; she has won.

Kauffman center looks guiltily at Kauffman left while motioning towards Kauffman right – the look says I love you, but I love her, more. 

Kauffman left has a garland of blue flowers in her hair; she is perhaps the more ethereal and artistic of the three.  Soulful, perhaps is the right word.  That quality of soul is missing from Kauffman right, and one wonders to what degree she felt forced to choose painting over music.  But these doubts are subverted somewhat by the neoclassical and painterly background.  Music never stood a chance.

Painters without number have executed self-portraits, but few have so explicitly illustrated their thinking. 

Questions of choice seemed to be a constant throughout Kauffman’s life.  Here is an excerpt from Nollekens and his Times, written in 1828 by J. T. Smith:

The reader will probably recollect the manner in which Angelica Kauffman was imposed upon by a gentleman’s servant, who married her under the name of Count Horn, and the way in which his treachery was discovered; as related in the early part of the present volume.  Angelica, however, was universally considered as a coquette, so that we cannot deeply sympathize in her disappointment; and as a proof how justly she deserved that character, I shall give an anecdote which have often heard Mr. Nollekens relate.  When Angelica was at Rome, previously to her marriage, she was ridiculously fond of displaying her person, and being admired; for which purpose she one evening took her station in one of the most conspicuous boxes of the Theatre, accompanied by [painter] Nathaniel Dance and another artist, both of whom, as well as many others, were desperately enamored of her.  Angelica, perhaps, might have recollected the remonstrance of Mrs. Peachum, where she says,

Oh, Polly! You might have toy’d and kiss’d
By keeping men off you keep them on:

However, while she was standing between her two beaux, and finding an arm of each most lovingly embracing her waist, she contrived, whilst her arms were folded before her on the front of the box over which she was leaning, to squeeze the hand of both, so that each lover concluded himself beyond all doubt the man of her choice.

More Kauffman tomorrow.

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