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Angelica Kauffman, a Cultivated Self

Angelica Kauffman, a Cultivated Self

Lucy von Goetz


Angelica Kauffman’s paintings could be passed over by contemporary eyes. Her contribution was not revolutionary or experimental in any technical sense. But after some research you realise that she achieved a great and rare thing in her day. She reached a celebrity-level of renown, on her own merit, talent, and engineering. To be a working female artist in a business capacity during that time, was an act of bravery, statement, and flair.  Kauffman became a darling of the eighteenth-century European culture-squad. A celebrated contemporary painter and known star, she was famous and in-demand. German philosopher Johann Herder described her as, “the most cultivated woman in Europe”. Writer and friend, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe referred to her as, "tender soul Angelica". Her steadfast friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote her down in his pocketbook as, “Miss Angelica” and “Miss Angel”. She was widely treasured and admired.


She was born in Switzerland in 1741, the daughter of a Swiss mother and an Austrian artist, Johann Kauffman. Most of Kauffman's childhood was spent in the Swiss region of Morbegno. Her father decided to leave Switzerland and settle in Austria with his family in 1755, Angelica was sixteen, in search of more business. Relocation for the sake of art as business, helped pave the way for Kauffman's international stardom and work-travel. When Kauffman’s mother died, her father dedicated himself to her artistic training, recognising a talent in his daughter. This involved a committed programme of Italian adventuring.


In October 1765, Kauffman met Lady Wentworth, the British ambassador’s wife in Venice and a society force, who convinced Kauffman to journey to London with her. In true Kauffman style she had already set the stage for a grand entrance to London outside of Lady Wentworth’s influence; but did take the opportunity to travel with her to England from Italy. It was good timing.


One year prior to her arrival in London Kauffman had sent her portrait of the famous British actor and playwright, David Garrick to the exhibition of the Free Society of Artists. She had painted his portrait in Naples in 1764. This was the painting that cemented her reputation as a painter of popular personalities in Rome and in London.


Instead of portraying Garrick in his usual theatrical splendour, Kauffman chose to paint him in a plain brown coat, out of role, removed from the career that had made him a star. She painted him as a man, not as a pageant. His gaze poised over the back of a chair, offering a flirtatious but slightly cautious quality. The composition evokes a palpable sense of their shared presence during that sitting, with her gaze fixed on him. It was something to call attention to in this period, for a woman to look at a man so directly and for so long, far from the received expectation of the demure woman. As if to acknowledge their joint progressive, energetic charisma, Garrick penned a little tongue-in-cheek verse for the St James’s Chronicle, cementing their artistic camaraderie:


While thus you paint with Ease and Grace,

And Spirit all your own;

Take, if you please, my Mind and Face,

But let my Heart alone.


Once in London it was through Lady Wentworth’s social network that Kauffman met Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President of the Royal Academy of Arts. Reynolds and Kauffman shared a love of history painting, they formed a friendship quickly. Reynolds championed the idea of using painting to convey "intellectual grandeur", which Kauffman often played with in her work, with references, and reversals, and direct messages. Reynolds and Kauffman’s connection manifested in some of their artworks, subtle but clear dispatches to one another. Kauffman’s world expanded quickly through her association with Wentworth and Reynolds, two figures with gravitas in the London social and artistic scene.


One of the most charged things about Kauffman was that she was an artist who was in the business of art. She knew that to paint at liberty she needed money, and a space to entertain and exhibit. The income from her work was integral to the freedom of her work. She never took that for granted. Virginia Woolf once highlighted the “very important turn in the road” at which Aphra Behn, a middle-class widow, showed it was possible to make an independent living as a writer. This art was business. It had to be kept up year after year; it took courage, wit, and practicality; it breached the social codes that made it distasteful for a woman to work professionally. When Kauffman had money spare, she bought paintings – turning her money back into art. She was immersed. Her work was her life, and her life was her work. The rest of life came secondary to her professional endeavours, and it paid off.


Self-portraiture was extremely important to Kauffman’s career. She produced some 24 self-portraits, in addition to various self-referential images. Painting herself offered the perfect vehicle with which to control her personal image and brand. Through this she could explore her identity as an artist and cast herself within the narratives and drama of painting.


In ‘Self-Portrait in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry’ (1782), Kauffman evokes her own image and blurs fable with identity. In the painting two women are seated, one dressed in white, poised with pen and paper, the other in red and gold holding a lyre. Kauffman assumes the guise of Design. The painting renders and radiates a moment of inspiration. We see the juncture of an idea forming. The whole canvas communicates the time-stopping wonder of it. That little gasp of excited pleasure. The anticipation that something good is underway. Poetry sits here as a guiding-hand for artistic epiphany. Kauffman, who painted epic scenes of heroic endurance and grief from classical tales, wanted also to paint this, a subject as thrilling as any she knew: an artist having an idea as she listens to poetry.


After a fruitful fifteen years in London, Kauffman set out for Italy in the summer of 1781 with her then husband, Antonio Zucchi and her father. The group stopped en route at the latter’s homeland in the Bregenz Forest, Austria. It was here that Kauffman consciously identified herself with her paternal homeland by painting her own portrait dressed in the area’s traditional costume, more than once.


She kept one of these paintings in her studio for the rest of her life and despite the personal significance of the work and the external pressures, she did not choose it to represent herself in the pantheon of artists’ self-portraits at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Her concern over this decision highlights the importance she placed on fashioning her public image. Her reflections were possibly spurred on by reports of the fervent reception of Reynolds’s accepted portrait by the Uffizi in 1782.


Her second Uffizi portrait from 1787, ‘Self-portrait in all’antica Dress’, shows her in a simple white robe – like those she used for most of her female sitters – she tapped into a Neoclassical taste and avoided any hint of specific trends to create a timelessness in the piece. The only distinct decoration is on her belt which, in an erudite nod to the painting’s destination, sports a cameo that was owned by the Medici family showing a contest between Minerva and Neptune. The Medici family created the Uffizi Gallery in 1560, as a space, and in 1581 as a museum. This accepted large and striking painting inhabits a transitional space between a literal depiction of the artist’s likeness and as a bold symbolic image of Kauffman as creator and muse married as one. Her portrait was chosen to hang next to Michelangelo’s in the gallery, an indication of the regard her contemporaries had for this painting.


Kauffman remained protective of her image until the end. At a loss to us and a more lucid view of her life, she burnt all her letters and notes in 1805 when she sensed life’s curtains beginning to draw. The practical and astute control she mastered over her career as an artist extended to her legacy, erasing all words, leaving only pictures. Kauffman mainly painted within the typical classical compass of her day, but she correctly occupies a rare and significant position, by virtue of her independent income, respect, talent, and a far-reaching adoration from those who alighted upon her.  


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