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Angelica Kauffman: One Of The Few Female Masters Of History Art

Updated: Feb 28

The Sorrow of Telemachus by Angelica Kauffman
The Sorrow of Telemachus by Angelica Kauffman | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sometimes when I stumble upon different arguments for the incorrect usage of the word feminism in a thesis or leading books about feminism foretelling the perspective of history, it upsets me for my unorthodox way of thinking. For instance, the woman's revolution for Labour and wages was about equality and rights, which is usually blended with theories of feminism, but it was never that. There might be a few people who were against women's rights, but at the same, there belonged neutral people. And so generalising with the gender for an unfortunate event is absolutely ridiculous. Revisiting history through gender is an absurd idea. Take another instance; as you read about the Italian history of patronage of art and poetry for females, they enjoyed privileges irrespective of their gender. Sparrow's Woman Painters Of The World represents a theory that Italians put more effort into learning for women because they cared more about their profession and that they lived longer than men. Furthermore, Italian painters took pride in depicting women of intelligence in their paintings. As the text continues from Renaissance, it reaches till Baroque period to tell about Artemisia Gentileschi, a prominent female painter whose talent enabled her to continue to be a proficient painter despite her tragic life events in which her father continued to support her but one of the famous biographies on the artist by Mary d. Garrard says the opposite, and it feels like her thoughts of herself take a dominating force on the reader instead of giving a true vision of history. While I do not disregard the historian's true purpose in informing us of the relevant events of Artemisia's life, I feel concerned when history is presented with a biased viewpoint. Hence, I have decided to put all my efforts into covering the lives of painters through the resources of the older centuries to give you a broader and unbiased view of history. As a part of this very effort, we are here to learn about the story of a famous female Neoclassicist painter, Angelica Kauffman, who was quite acceptable for her art, like Sirani and Artemisia Gentileschi, depicting history paintings on frescoes. In addition, her popularity was as high as men's, and she was one of the crucial painters of the time. So let us start reading and inspiring ourselves with her life.

An Account Of The Artist's Early Life.

Born in Coire, the capital of Grisons, Switzerland, in 1741, Angelica Kauffman studied at a British school in her early days. As a prodigy, Kauffman's father, a provincial painter in Bregenz, trained her as a painter and her mother as a musician. Even while she was under the guidance of her father, she had many portrait commissions. As Kauffman progressed in her career while in her teens, she decided to choose between music and art. De Rossi, who was the biographer of Angelica Kauffman, mentioned that to eradicate the dilemma of choosing the right career path, she consulted a local priest with her father. He advised her that music may be a chance of easier and early success but will be more lucrative, but at the same time, a life of a painter would not bring initial success but is an arduous and intellectual profession to carry out. Hence, after the incident followed, Kauffman decided to be a painter.

Angelica Kauffman Self Portrait
Angelica Kauffman Self-Portrait | Source: National Portrait Gallery, London

In her later years of life, during the 1790s, Angelica memorialized this incident between the two choices in career through a self-portrait, where she showed herself between two female figures representing the arts of painting and music. Such personifications were the standard means of allegory since the Renaissance, and so these images, which link themselves to the time of antiquity through poses, gestures, and dresses, were often termed Iconologia. Furthermore, Rossi suggested that her composition was also based on a well-known story, The Choice, or Judgement, of Hercules, in which Hercules confronts the moral choice between pleasure represented by a beautiful and sensuous-reclining woman and Virtue, personified by a powerful and armed woman pointing the way of Glory. In her version of the story, she substituted Hercules for sensual pleasure for music while depicting herself with a heroic posture on the dignity of the arts. You must further note that, unlike other woman artists like Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba and Robusti, she does not portray herself playing music as she considered art as a proper aristocratic feminine accomplishment, expressing a decorum. Hence, Kauffman's purposeful rejection of music makes her different from other woman artists.

Angelica Kauffman Self Portrait hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting
Angelica Kauffman Self Portrait hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting | Source: National Trust Collections of The United Kingdom

Kauffman's Movement In Italy.

As she made a choice, Angelica Kauffman travelled and lived with her father in Italy since the hub of artisans was at the centre of Europe. During that time, she would spend hours in the galleries of Milan copying the paintings of Old Masters, a privilege and honour for any artist. Later, they went to visit additional regions of southern Europe to broaden Kauffman's knowledge of the Renaissance and perfect her technical skills. She studied the works of Correggio in Parma and Caracci in Bologna and tried producing their copies as her training. In 1762, when she arrived in Florence city, she obtained permission to copy the master paintings at the Uffizi in a separate room and was then accepted as a member of Florence's prestigious Accademia del Disegno in the same year. Following her travels, she explored Rome in 1763 and Naples after fulfilling commissions to copy the paintings in the Royal Collection of Capodimonte. During this period, she acquired the skills of Neoclassicism art.

Angelica Kauffman paintings during this period majorly demonstrated her awareness and involvement in antiquity and neoclassicism. In Naples, she painted portraits for Englishmen such as Dravid Garrick, Anglo-American Dr. John Morgan of Philadelphia, Devon, etc, who afterward became her patrons.

Portrait of David Garrick by Angelica Kauffman
Portrait of David Garrick by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Burghley House Preservation Trust Limited

There is a noteworthy fact that her sketchbook included numerous portraits of studies from Antique, Titian's Pesaro Madonna in Venice and Rembrandt's self-portrait.

Study of a Standing Woman by Angelica Kauffman
Study of a Standing Woman by Angelica Kauffman | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A sketch of Rembrandt's self portrait by Angelica Kauffman
A sketch of Rembrandt's self portrait by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An untitled Angelica Kauffman sketch
An untitled Angelica Kauffman sketch | Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Angelica Kauffman sketch Marriage of Saint Catherine
Angelica Kauffman sketch Marriage of Saint Catherine | Source: Unknown Author

Looking At The First Historical Paintings Of The Artist.

As Angelica Kauffman stayed in Italy, she had a variety of commissions from portraits to religious subjects, however, her studies and practice towards Antique art shaped her career as a history painter, a genre which very few women practised.

One of the earliest known Angelica Kauffman paintings of history genre is Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, Discovered by Bacchus, signed and dated in 1764. The artist portrayed the God of Wine with his leopard skin, thyrsus and a crown of vine leaves, having a muscular body, which traces its position and dress to a period of Antiquity. He looks down at the weeping maiden reclining in the erotic pose of Venetian Renaissance beauty, draped in a sheer white fabric and lounged on a vibrant red blanket, giving a subtle contrast in the composition.

Bacchus Discovering the abandoned Ariadne Angelica Kauffman paintings
Bacchus Discovering the abandoned Ariadne by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the more famous history painting by Angelica Kauffman was Bacchus Discovering the abandoned Ariadne, a commission from John Byng, depicting the scene of Greek and Roman history. The theme of the artwork was the story of Coriolanus, where the Roman hero was banished by his own people, and in anger, he joined their enemies to attack on Rome.

In another scene of Coriolanus Entreated by His Mother, Vetturia and his wife, Volumnia; both the women accompanied by Coriolanus's children stand before him in his camp to stop the war against his native land. His mother shows her outstretched arm, appearing to speak, which comes after he steps forward to embrace her. The pose speaks for peace and family unity, ultimately convincing him to withdraw his troops.

History paintings were the most strenuous and demanding genre, which needed to have an extensive knowledge of literature and history, skills of drawing the human figure, perspective and technical understanding of frescoes or canvas. Hence, there were very few women painters, who were proficient history painters, and Angelica Kauffman was one among them. Further, anatomy was a leading challenge for women as they were not allowed to draw nude models of males, and so they grasped knowledge through the study of sculpture and painting.

In Italy, as we know that Kauffman studied the works of most old masters and acquainted herself with Antique sculpture and architecture, so she developed her skills of perspective, chiaroscuro, colour, proportion and elegance of form. Hence, to form a foundation for the creation of suitable and noble subjects, she read the history and poetry of various languages. After she started her journey to London from Italy, she was thoroughly prepared to be a painter of history and portraits.

Arrival In England And Her Partners.

Angelica Kauffman succeeded as an artist in the British due to her ability to produce a variety of art. She was an excellent portraitist, a genre which Britishers demanded most. Her decorative mythological and allegorical scenes were suitable for reproduction on painted furniture, ceramics and textiles. During this period, she did marry twice, where her first marriage was nearly a disastrous scandal. From the biographies in German and English, she tended to have a physical charm and feminine wile. They also stressed and speculated on the various supposed relationships with men, including engagement with Nathaniel Dance in Italy, a suspected marriage proposal from Reynolds and her seduction by Jean-paul Marat.

Speaking of her first marriage, the man, Count Frederic de Horn, tricked her at the end of 1767 to remain in England. However, the illegal union soon dissolved, and her father paid him off. Despite her disastrous and illegal marriage, she maintained freedom of work and heavy aspirations towards her profession. At 40, Angelica Kauffman married again to Antonio Zucchi, who was a great partner to her.

During her time in England, she enjoyed success, privileges, and notable earnings.

After a few years, she went back to her native land as her father wished for his last years.

Final Words.

Angelica Kauffman was one of the finest and most successful woman artists in history. Though she studied during her travel to Italy, she gained serious success in England. During her fifteen years spent in the British, on her departure, her poet friend, Geroge Kreate published his Epistle to Angelica Kauffman, which he described as a mark of inspiration and achievement. We know from the pages of history that her leaving England created an impending loss of such an accomplished painter and grief-stricken the British. Women like Angelica Kauffman were not only an inspiration to all of us, but also a noteworthy example of dedication towards learning!

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who was Angelica Kauffman?

Angelica Kauffman was a Swiss-born Neoclassicist painter who mastered the history art genre. Remembered as an excellent portraitist, she was a member of Florence's prestigious Accademia del Disegno and a crucial painter of the 18th century, especially in England.

What kind of artist was Angelica Kauffmann?

Angelica Kauffmann was a Neoclassicist who excelled in the History painting genre and found great success as a portraitist.

Where did Angelica Kauffman live?

Angelica Kauffman was born in Coire, the capital of Grisons, in Switzerland. However, the artist travelled to Italy, Florence and Naples for getting acquainted with art and spent approximately 15 years in England, where she gained success as a portraitist. Later she settled in her homeland to fulfil his father's wish during his last years.

What influenced Angelica Kauffman?

Angelica Kauffman appeared to have been inspired by the old masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, for which the artist spent her time copying and learning from their artworks.

Why was Angelica Kauffman so important?

Angelica Kauffman often referred to as the Queen of Neoclassicism brought back antiquity to the art by getting inspired and learning from the paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. She was the first female member of the Royal Academy and a member of Florence's prestigious Accademia del Disegno. Additionally, she was among the few female painters who took commissions for frescoes and history art making her immensely successful during the 18th century.

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