Angelica Kauffman: Master of Canvas, Built for Business

Angelica Kauffman: Master of Canvas, Built for Business

In the grand art scene of 18th-century European art, few figures landed themselves in the industry as tactfully as Angelica Kauffman. A prodigy of the brush and an orchestrator of her career, Kauffman navigated the male-dominated world of art with talent and a tenacity for what she wanted.

Kauffman, born in 1741 in Switzerland, was not destined to stay put. She drew her first pastel portraits at nine, and at thirteen she was making copies of Old Masters. With her father Johann Joseph Kauffman acting as her mentor and promoter, young Angelica journeyed through Italy, absorbing the influences of Renaissance masters and baroque virtuosos. Her keen eye and deft hand quickly established her as a formidable artist in an era when society expected women to focus on music rather than oil painting.

In Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting, Kauffman painted herself at the crossroad between Music on the left, and Art (dressed in the primary colours) on the right. We can tell by Kauffman’s upturned hand and body language which direction she will be going. The way she painted Art’s expression says a lot. I like to read it as Art saying ‘Girl, let’s go! What are you waiting for – we are going to the TOP.’

Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting, Angelica Kauffman

In 1777 Kauffman was drawn to the shift in art’s epicentre and moved to London. She set up a studio in Charing Cross and later moved it to Soho. She became friends with painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and inserted herself into the fabric of society’s elite. Together they petitioned to King George III that England should open a Royal Academy of Arts to keep up with those on the continent. With that, Angelica became a founding member of the RA and Sir Joshua first President.

Kaufmann stood alongside only one other woman at the RA, Mary Moser, amidst a sea of male contemporaries. People say that Moser was a ‘safe’ artist. She painted mainly flowers which, although masterpieces, didn’t put her in a position to challenge the establishment. Kaufmann in comparison was more forward, using her art to convey people, politics and life. In what can only be described as typical-and-thank-god-that’s-changed, after Angelica and Mary died, the next woman to enter the Royal Academy did not enter until the 1930s… In The Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Zoffany we can quite literally see what it meant to be a female founding member of the RA.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy, Johan Zoffany

 The painting shows the founders painting a male nude, a scene females would not have been privy to draw from life. Look closely and you can see Angelica and Mary, on the wall, depicted as there, but not in amongst it.

Kauffman’s personal life was as colorful as her canvases. She first fell for the charms of Johann Zoffany, a fellow artist whose flirtations were as bold as his brushstrokes. Their dalliance, however, was short-lived and gave way to a more scandalous affair. ‘Count’ Frederick de Horn, actually a conman named Brandt, duped Kauffman into a sham marriage. The scandal rocked her, but instead of retreating into the shadows, she rose from the debacle with greater determination.

After the annulment of her fraudulent marriage, Kauffman found true companionship in Antonio Zucchi, an Italian painter who shared her passion for art and ambition. Together, they created a formidable partnership, both in the studio and in life.

In the background of her official relationships was an air of will they/won’t they between Angelica and Sir Joshua Reynolds. With ten years between them, the pair defended their relationship as purely platonic. But looking into the portraits they painted of each other, the romantics amongst us will see that there was more to it.

Left/Top: Portrait of Angelica Kauffman, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Right/Bottom: Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, by Angelica Kauffman

In both portraits the eyes are soft and loving, with a sense of longing and fondness. Reynolds paints Angelica precious, porcelain white and almost showing her whole shoulder – which is scandalous. Her hair is loose, showing her in a familiar rather than formal setting. Kauffman’s picture of Reynolds, with one hand casually hand propping up his face, also shows familiarity. But his left hand stretched over his knee suggests he is holding himself back. The Michelangelo bust to the left of the portrait gives the sense that it is watching – and perhaps judging.

Critics celebrated Kauffman’s portraits and historical paintings for their classical elegance and emotional depth. She painted everyone who was anyone, from literary giants to royalty – including a commission from the Queen Mother. Alongside Sir Joshua, Angelica was selected to decorate the interior of St Paul’s Cathedral, and later recieved a similar commission from Pope Pius VI. Her success cemented her status as the darling of the European art scene. She lived her life navigating a labyrinth of social expectations, personal betrayals, and professional rivalries. She did so with a grace that belied the challenges she faced. Her legacy is not merely one of artistic brilliance but also of resilience and reinvention. This occurred in a world that often underestimated women.

Angelica Kauffman died in 1807, but her story endures. She is a testament to a woman who defied the odds and created her own destiny. Her life is a masterpiece in itself, a blend of beauty and scandal that continues to captivate and inspire. So, the next time you gaze upon one of her portraits, remember: behind her brushstroke lies a saga of triumph and tempest, worthy of the grandest galleries and the most eloquent of gossip.

By Alejandra Christie

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