As far as women are concerned the Age of Reason in the eighteenth century was certainly inappropriately named. This was a period when the role of women, especially in a professional sphere, took a retrograde step. Although private salons, hosted by wealthy and powerful women, reached the height of their influence at this time, there was also many voices raised in favour of women’s rights, but to no avail.
An increasing emphasis was being placed on family life and the role of women was being re-defined all over Europe and England as one that ideally remained in the home.
This was a view enhanced by the popularity of French political philosopher, educator and author Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) who extolled its importance. The Emperor Napoleon would also agree. It was also aligned with an increase in knowledge about, and the increased study of life in Ancient Rome when women were subjugated and had very few rights.
Despite all of this some women still managed to receive critical acclaim, found and join many European art academies, while teaching their own pupils. They usually painted under assumed male names and often their work was re-signed and copied by unscrupulous collectors and dealers.
Be civil to all; sociable to many; familiar with few; friend to one; enemy to none*
Artist Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) was one such woman of influence and style. In her self portrait of 1780 she aligned herself with a sculpture of Minerva, Roman Goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, arts and crafts and music.
A history painter and decorative style leader Angelica had produced her first commissioned portrait before she had reached her teenage years. Her father, a well regarded painter Joseph Johann Kauffman, trained her in the basics of drawing and painting, allowing her to work beside him copying plaster casts and other objects.
He decided to leave Switzerland in 1755 to search for a broader range of patrons in Austria, where his wife Cleophea Lutz died in 1757. In 1760 he left for Italy taking Angelica their only child with him.
She was sixteen when they left Switzerland for Austria and then went on to Italy, where she would assist him to complete several important religious commissions.
Along the way she gained numerous portrait commissions herself and spent long hours in galleries copying paintings by the Old Masters.
This was a privilege not usually granted to women and is a compliment to the high regard officials had for her father and his work. It enabled Angelica to broaden her knowledge of painting styles and innovative techniques, as well as refine her own skills.
In Florence she was accepted into the prestigious Accademia del Disegno obtaining special permission to copy in a separate room at the Uffizi Gallery where she enjoyed both the privilege and privacy.
Angelica met many distinguished theorists and artists during her travels. One of the most influential was German archaeologist, Johann Joachim Winckelmann whose classes on perspective she attended.
His is an extraordinary story as well. Born into poverty he studied the history of art and completed his thesis on the antique. He became librarian to collector and connoisseur, Cardinal Albani at Rome (1755), a position that afforded him many privileges and experiences. In 1758 he examined the excavations going on at the Italian towns Herculaneum, Pompeii and Paestum first hand. He also went to Florence where he wrote a treatise on ancient architecture (1762).
As Superintendent of Roman antiquities he extolled the merits of Greek architecture over Roman, a controversy that raged for many years.
He would have a profound influence on both the future of archaeology and art, as well as transform prevailing taste during the closing years of the eighteenth century.
Winckelmann’s major work, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764, “The History of Ancient Art”) was translated into French in 1766 and later into English and Italian. His wide knowledge and lively imagination would be modified or reversed by subsequent researchers. However at the time his enthusiasm, passion, style and vivid descriptions of great art gave his opinion immediate appeal and he exercised a profound influence on the best minds of the age.
Meeting him would also have an impact on Angelica, her life and work as a history painter. He admired her accomplishments and in a letter of 1764 said “She may be styled beautiful,…and in singing may vie with our best virtuosi.”
She was by then a popular portraitist for English visitors to Rome and painted his picture, a half-length, of which she also made an etching.
She also met American painter Benjamin West (1738-1820), who had copied the old masters when he was in Italy.
West had influential friends, such as the multi talented Benjamin Franklin one of the founding fathers of America. West settled in London where he became founding President of the Royal Academy and was appointed historical painter to the court by King George III.
The neoclassical movement in painting, sculpture, architecture and literature guided Winckelmann and West’s preferences.
It is difficult for us today to grasp the full effect this extensive movement had on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century life and times.
The more you read the more you realise that it was not just a label invented for the convenience of art historians. It was an idea that became integral to the culture of an age when educated and enlightened men and women set out to rediscover their heritage in the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome.
Painting and sculpture were important mediums of communication both regarded as capable of conveying strong moral and inspirational messages through the use of allegory and mythology.
Sculpture particularly expressed strongly the sentiments of the time.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the works of Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822).
His goals of simplicity and idealism are revealed in his works, which were particularly poignant as he stripped away excess ornament to reveal the soul beneath.
The depth of emotion in his simply beautiful sculpture of Cupid & Pschye in the Louvre at Paris still stops people dead in their tracks amazed that someone could draw such beauty out of a lump of stone.
Painters and painters, sculpture and sculptors exercised a great influence on the minds of the polite classes. They also played a very practical role by recording contemporary life and experiences such as those of the grand tourist, who commissioned works from the vast pool of painters resident at Rome.
History painting, the painting of scenes with narrative content from classical history, had a great appeal. It sought to represent a moral point, and was considered a ‘proper’ subjects for painters to complete, especially if they were noble or inspired a balance between the serious and frivolous.
Jacques Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii is one of the most stirring of the time, depicting that moment when men must choose between a glorious death for their country tan remaining at home with their family, all of whom are grief stricken at their impending departure towards a fate unknown.
It is all about remaining loyal to Rome or the Republic, which at that time was the major political issue in both France and America.
These were men willing to lay down their lives out of patriotic duty. How then did an artist like Angelica Kauffman succeed at a time when the social mores and assumptions were that it was unseemly and inappropriate for a lady to be admitted to what was regarded as a male preserve.
The full support of her father was the key, however she also had friends in high places, including renowned English artist Joshua Reynolds with whom she had a long and happy friendship.
He painted her and she returned the compliment. He became one of Angelica’s greatest champions during her years in London and a friend and ally during difficult times.
Angelica was also one of the two female painters admitted to the Royal Academy of Art as founding members, an extraordinary achievement. Mary Moser particularly known for her representation of flowers was the other.
From 1769 until 1782, she was an annual exhibitor and in 1773 she was appointed through the Academy along with other artists to decorate St Paul’s Cathedral. With another talented artist, Biagio Rebecca, she painted the Academy’s old lecture room at Somerset House.
Angelica and Mary Moser’s inclusion in the founding membership of a male dominated society was a dilemna for artist Johann Zoffany when he was commissioned to paint the founding members of the Academy for posterity.
He solved it by painting the two women’s portraits and hanging them framed on the wall of the room in the painting, which contains all the men members who are admiring the naked male form, a subject that would have been still totally inappropriate for women to view in person.
Angelica Kauffmann was, by all accounts, as an exceptionally accomplished attractive young woman, proficient in several languages. A gifted singer she also played several musical instruments and in fact it did come to a point in her career where she had to decide between being a musician or a painter.
Her earliest biographer was an Italian, with whom she had a relationship in the latter years of her life in Rome. Giovanni Gherardo de Rossi is the main source of material about her life which would certainly make a wonderful movie or series on television.
It contains all the elements – drama, romance, honours and scandal, as well as a cast of fabulous characters from one of the most extraordinary periods in history. It was in 1760 that she made her choice to be a painter, rather than a musician which everyone else wanted her to be.
This in itself is an extraordinary statement because women of the eighteenth century are not generally known for making ‘career choices’, especially a proper young woman of reputedly high moral standards. Her success can be attributed to her flexibility and ability to grasp her painting was to reflect without ostentation or distraction, the spirit of antiquity.
She reputedly had a ‘sweet’ temperament’, which was remarked on by many of the men in the circle she moved within. She had a genuine ability to adapt to a variety of genres from portraits to history painting, to etchings, engravings, designs for decorative panels and cartoons for porcelain painting.
Angelica painted Penelope at her Loom in 1764. A popular theme in mythology Penelope was the patient wife who is most famous for waiting faithfully for her husband Odysseus to return from the ten year Trojan War and performing his famous Trojan horse trick.
Angelica depicts her as the ideal embodiment of devotion seated at her loom weaving and unraveling her father in law’s shroud.
This was a deliberate attempt to deceive and delay the numerous suitors who wanted her hand in marriage because Odysseus had been presumed dead and until the task was completed they could not ask her. Penelope was a role model for the virtuous woman.
She was the ideal married woman and mother; patient, faithful, gifted, intelligent with great beauty and strength
Angelica remained under her father’s protection when she first arrived in England with him in 1766. In 1767 she married a Swedish count in secret and then suffering appalling embarrassment when he turned out to be a bigamist.
Unable to annul the marriage she had to wait until he died to marry the man with whom she had a professional and personal relationship, Italian artist Antonio Zucchi.
He worked on many projects for the definitive neoclassical architect in England, Scottish Architect Robert Adam.
The magnificent grand circular staircase at Home House in London that he was completing was embellished with stucco decoration and medallions designed, cast and applied by Antonio Zucchi and illusionistic murals and grisaille (grey colours) panels.
After many years in England exhibiting at the Royal Academy Angelica and her husband decided to return to Rome where she painted ‘Leonardo da Vinci dying in the arms of Francis I ‘. She opened a salon attended by many distinguished visitors, including another of the great men in her life German writer and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was on his Italian tour 1786 – 1788.
His works contributed to the expanding interest in classical art and was a major motivating factor in his making the trip.
She completed his portrait in 1787 and he admired her industriousness, observing that she worked harder and accomplished more than any other artist he knew.
She lost her father first in 1782 and then her husband in 1795. “The poverty does not terrify me,” she confided to an intimate friend, “but the loneliness kills me.”
When Angelica Kauffmann died in 1807, her funeral was organised by none other than the sculptor Antonio Canova, whose achievements and works were admired alongside Renaissance master Michaelangelo for the skill and beauty of their execution.
It was attended by the entire Academy of St Luke, to which she belonged, as well as ecclesiastics and virtuosi all of whom witnessed her being laid in her tomb in San Andrea delle Fratte.
Angelica Kauffmann was accorded the singular honour and same privilege as the great Renaissance artist Raphael when two of her works were carried in her funeral procession, which was a fine tribute to this extraordinary woman of artistry, integrity, influence and amazing achievement.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2015
*Benjamin Franklin 1706 – 1790