Angelica Kauffman; reclaiming the female subject in 18th century art

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Described by a contemporary philosopher, Johann Gottfreid Herder, as ‘perhaps the most cultivated woman in the whole of Europe’, Swiss-German artist, Angelica Kauffman, redefined and reclaimed the female subject in eighteenth century high society from its tight male grip. Somehow, it was only last weekend, when I visited the Royal Academy of Arts’ current (1 March – 30 June 2024) exhibition of her work, that I first encountered her paintings and began to understand her pioneering role. Nonetheless, I felt inspired by her novel approach towards the historic art genre (framed through a female-protagonist perspective), and her striking portraits of contemporary women, where she defined them foremost through their professions, showcasing them as subjects with depth and agency, rather than swooning or helpless.

A pioneer through her pieces; staging the self, reclaiming the female portrait and the history art genre

Working within the history art genre, considered the most masculine realm of Western art, Kauffman vividly depicts the ancient world and its protagonists. Unlike her (male) neoclassical contemporaries, she paints from a perspective that sympathizes with the female characters, often reversing gender roles to establish the ‘hero(ine)’ and rejecting the popular sexualisation of women to instead assert their power. At the RA exhibition, I was particularly taken with the oil painting ‘Death of Alcestis’ which depicts the 438BC Euripides tragedy ‘Alcestis’. In this tragedy, Alcestis sacrifices her own life for her husband, King Admetus, who is trying to cheat death which he cannot bear to face himself. In this painting, it is Admetus who is grieving, helpless and dependent, whilst Alcestis commands dignity, in being fully clothed, and worth, in how many people are mourning her death. This rejects the idealised default expectation of bond between husband and wife, depicting a role reversal of the mourning wife and heroic husband.

The wife figure is treated again with respect in her 1765 painting ‘Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Anthony’, which is a solemn and peaceful image featuring Cleopatra accompanied by two maids (all fully dressed) gracefully placing flowers over her husband’s tomb. In contrast to acclaimed depictions of Cleopatra’s death (see Louis Jean François Lagrenée (1755), John Collier (1890)), in which Cleopatra’s modesty tends to be, at least partly, exposed and focus is on the physicality of the corpse, Kauffman’s painting is in some senses simple, rejecting the notion of a hysterical female, and commands sympathy for a wife mourning an emotional bond she has lost.

Rather than background figures, or accompaniments for men, Kauffman made many portraits of women defined, foremost, through their profession. This gives an agency and depth to the female subject beyond the purpose of beauty or male satisfaction. For example, her portrait of Lady Hamilton (1971) depicts her first and foremost as Emma, muse of comedy, defined by her theatrical talents, rather than her marriage to British diplomat and distinguished antiquary, Sir William Hamilton, or her most famous role as mistress of Lord Nelson.

Her empowering portraits were not confined to depictions of other women. Kauffman produced at least 24 self-portraits throughout her career, often blurring the boundary between self-portraiture and allegorical (moral) representations. These were a tool to claim agency in how her image was presented to society and to explore her own artistic identity. One of her reonwned pieces is Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting (1974). This large painting claims its own wall in the RA exhibition and depicts Kauffman at a pivotal turning point in her life where she must choose to pursue either her passion and talent at music or painting. Not only does this mimic the story of Hercules at the crossroads of vice and virtue (showing she is not afraid to align her struggles and experience with that of a mythical man firgure), but it speaks to the strength and depth of her character that she is a woman of many gifts, and to make paintings is a choice by and for her, not society.

Angelica Kauffman’s prestige by no means placed her above the limitations and obstacles faced by her contemporary females; she and Mary Moser were forbidden from attending the RA life drawing sessions (deemed an essential exercise in the practice of history art) and faced continual exclusion (immortalised in the official painting of the founding Royal Academicians (Zoffany, 1771-2) where they only feature as portraits on the wall. Nonetheless, her undeniable artistic talent and gift of storytelling yielded high demand for her work, thus beginning to integrate viewpoints, almost unheard of at the time, into the art sphere.

A pioneer through her reputation; Kauffman and the Royal Academy

By the time she arrived at the London art scene, in 1766, Kauffman was attracting considerable attention, for example from Queen Charlotte, and was in high demand as a portraitist. Her growing reputation, Royal approval and close relations with other influential artists, such as Joshua Reynolds, ensured that when the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768, Kauffman was one of the 36 Founder Members, one of two of the female Founder Members.

Despite being outnumbered by her male counterparts, Angelica Kauffman was far from a peripheral member in the Academy. Not only were her paintings exhibited yearly in their annual exhibitions and sold at prices which matched male counterparts, but she succeeded in having a painting by Nethanial Hone (fellow Founder Member) removed from the 1775 annual exhibition. This painting (The Pictorial Conjuror, displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception, 1775) included a depiction of Kauffman dancing naked, which offended her greatly and she threatened to leave the Royal Academy if the painting was not removed. This threat succeeded, showing the gravity of her reputation and demand in the late eighteenth-century art scene.

Kauffman left London in 1781, though maintained connections both with the Royal Academy and her many British friends and patrons. When she ultimately died in Rome in 1807, she left behind a seed for changing framings of women, however remained (alongside the other female Founder Member, Mary Moser) the only female Royal Academian until the twentieth century.

I would encourage anyone who is in, or nearby, London before June 30th to pay this exhibition in Piccadilly a visit; student tickets are £11, which includes access to the entire gallery.

Image credit: Photography of RA exhibition by

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