A child prodigy, Swiss–born artist Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) was painting commissioned portraits of Europe's nobility by the time she was a teenager. Her portraits—distinguished by their dignified poses, bright and fresh color schemes, and fluid grace—became all the rage in late eighteenth century London.
Kauffman enjoyed stunning popularity during her lifetime and was the most sought after portraitist of her day, receiving a steady stream of commissions throughout her life. Her pictures, however, failed to retain their popularity after her death with critics most often attacking her draftsmanship and technique. Nearly 200 years after Kauffman's death, art historians continued to debate her place in history. No matter what critics say of her artwork, one thing remains certain—in an age where female artists were largely dismissed, Kauffman easily captured the public's eye.
Expressed Artistic Abilities as Youngster
Kauffman, christened Maria Anna Angelica Catherina Kauffman, was born October 30, 1741, in Coire, Switzerland. Her father, Johann Josef Kauffman, was a modestly successful painter who specialized in decorative church murals. Around 1740, after his first wife died, he headed to Coire, just south of Lichtenstein, to paint a church. While there, he met and married Kauffman's mother, Cleopha Luz.
Shortly after Kauffman's birth, the family moved to Morbegno, Lombardy, Italy. Kauffman began drawing almost as soon as she could hold a piece of chalk. When she was quite small, she would sit on the floor and draw hieroglyphic–type designs on it with fragments of scrap chalk her father gave her. When given writing books, Kauffman ignored the words she was supposed to copy and instead reproduced the ornamental designs that decorated the margins. Preferring the company of pencils and paints to people, Kauffman spent long hours in her father's studio copying his plaster models and his collection of prints.
Johann Kauffman recognized his daughter's talents early on and began instructing her. Though he was not a gifted painter, Johann Kauffman understood the fundamental principles of art and passed them on to his daughter. He showed Kauffman engravings of the great master painters and asked her to copy them. She caught on quickly. When Kauffman was about 11, the family moved to Como and Kauffman supposedly painted the Bishop of Como, her first public portrait. While Kauffman's father taught her art, her mother taught her different languages, like Italian, German, and French. Kauffman also excelled at music. She played several stringed instruments and took singing and harpsichord lessons.
By 1754, the family had settled in Milan, Italy, where Kauffman spent her days at the Ducal Gallery copying paintings of the old masters. While there she caught the attention of Rinaldo d'Este, the Duke of Modena and governor of the city. He asked the young teen to paint his wife. The duke loved the picture and Kauffman, soon hailed as a child prodigy, was flooded with commissions from the royal court.
In 1757, Kauffman's mother died and Johann Kauffman decided to return to his Austrian hometown of Schwarzenburg, where he still had family. He received a commission to decorate a local church. Johann Kauffman painted the ceilings and left the walls to his daughter, who painted frescos of the 12 apostles. The bishop loved the frescos so much that he awarded Kauffman other commissions.
Chose Art over Opera
Around 1760, Johann Kauffman took his daughter back to Milan because he wanted her to copy pieces from the great Italian master Leonardo da Vinci. Kauffman, however, was feeling pulled in two directions. While most noted for her artwork, she was also an accomplished singer and was considering a career in the opera. Kauffman realized, however, that it was time to choose. Kauffman decided to consult a family friend who was also a Catholic priest. He told Kauffman that the opera was a dangerous place filled with seedy people. He also told her that exposing herself onstage as a singer could lead to a life of sexual transgressions. Following the priest's warning, Kauffman gave up her dream of singing professionally, though she continued to entertain guests at parties.
Thirty years later, in 1794, Kauffman painted one of her most stunning pictures, titled "Self–Portrait Hesitating Between Painting and Music." The portrait shows Kauffman sitting between two mythical female figures—one art, one music—while they vie for her attention. The character of "painting" is rendered as a stern creature, though heroic and virtuous, whereas the figure for "music" is seen as a more light–hearted creature, bringing out feelings of sensual pleasure in the viewer. Kauffman's body language in the picture reveals her regret at choosing painting.
During the 1760s, the Kauffmans lived as itinerant artists, traveling to wherever Johann Kauffman could find work. Mostly, they stayed in Switzerland, Austria, and Northern Italy. Kauffman continued her studies but also worked as her father's assistant. These travels provided Kauffman a rare opportunity to study and copy the artwork of many great master painters from ancient to Renaissance times. The firsthand study of art masterpieces up close provided Kauffman with a solid foundation on which to build her career.
Became Popular with English Royal Court
By 1762, Kauffman and her father were living in Florence, Italy, and Kauffman was drawn into a circle of artists and intellectuals who greatly influenced the direction of her career. She met American artist Benjamin West who was highly popular with the English and who introduced her to many English patrons, including the Duke of Gordon. After Kauffman produced a painting of the duke, the English aristocracy became hooked on her work. Kauffman continued traveling, spending time in Rome and Naples, where she painted more English tourists. In her travels, Kauffman met famed English art historian Johann Joseph Winckelmann and German artist Anton Raphael Mengs, who offered encouragement. They were both leading figures of the burgeoning Neoclassical movement, which represented a revival of ancient Greek and Roman models and motifs in art and literature. Under Winckelmann's influence, Kauffman took an interest in mythology. She also painted his portrait.
In her book Special Visions, author Olga S. Opfell noted that Kauffman's artistic abilities surprised Winckelmann. According to the book, shortly after Kauffman painted Winckelmann, he wrote to a friend: "My portrait has been painted by a remarkable lady, a German artist. . . . She speaks Italian as well as German. She is also fluent in French and English and therefore paints portraits of the English visitors. She can claim to be beautiful and sings to rival the best virtuosi." The portrait of Winckelmann is one of Kauffman's best pieces.
In 1765, Kauffman's work appeared in England in an exhibition of the Free Society of Artists. She moved to England shortly thereafter and established herself as one of the leading artist of the day after she painted Duchess Augusta of Brunswick—sister to King George III—and her infant. The picture prompted a visit from the Princess of Wales making Kauffman an instant celebrity. Members of the royal family hired her to paint several more pictures. When England's Royal Academy was founded in 1768, Kauffman was one of two female members allowed to join. For the next 16 years, she exhibited her work there regularly. Kauffman's popularity in her day is obvious given her admission to the Royal Academy. It was 1922 before any more female members were allowed to join.
Around this time, Kauffman also became known for her decorative pieces. Working with famed Neoclassical designer Robert Adam, Kauffman created decorative wall paintings for many London residences. Her decorative designs were replicated on china, furniture, books, and prints. Like her portraits, these decorative pieces were highly popular and made Kauffman a celebrity in her own right. She was so popular that in 1773, the Royal Academy appointed Kauffman, along with a few other members, to decorate London's famed St. Paul's Cathedral.
Involved in Neoclassical Movement
In the late 1760s, Kauffman continued painting portraits for money, but on the side she turned her attention toward Neoclassicism—the painting of historical events from ancient Athens and Rome. At the time, this narrative approach to art was considered the most esteemed form of artistic expression. Kauffman was one of the few women involved in the movement. Many women in Kauffman's day painted flowers and landscapes, not people, because training in anatomy proved problematic. Most Neoclassical painters were men who had studied the human body in depth, painting countless nude models to learn the intricacies of illustrating the human body. As a woman, Kauffman was forbidden from working with nudes. Paintings of the Royal Academy members show the male members in the studio painting nudes. Kauffman is absent from these gatherings. When Kauffman did paint from models, they were draped with cloths and her father stayed in her studio with her to ward off criticism. Nonetheless, Kauffman became fairly skilled at drawing the human form.
At the first exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1769, Kauffman sent four Neoclassical history pieces illustrating the Iliad and the Odyssey. Her picture, "Interview of Hector and Andromache," conveyed the scene from the Iliad where the hero says farewell to his wife and young son before leaving for battle. This picture won praise, as did another entry, "Venus Showing Aeneas and Achates the Way to Carthage." Kauffman's history paintings were distinguished from others of the time period because she portrayed women at the center of the events.
Duped into Marriage
Kauffman was a stunning beauty. Newspaper articles as well as correspondence from her acquaintances attest to that. She attracted the attention of many men, several of whom were painters. Kauffman also reportedly broke many engagements and hearts in her day. English painter Nathaniel Dance and Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Fuseli were among her suitors. During the late 1760s, while in London, she fell for a man she thought was Count Frederick de Horn, a member of an influential Swiss family. They married November 22, 1767, in Piccadilly, England. Kauffman soon discovered, however, that the man she had married was not the count himself but a desperado impersonating the count.
The man's last name was Brandt. His mother, Christina Brandt, had been a maid to Count Horn and had become pregnant by him. Brandt was raised in the count's house and had access to the family jewels and documents, which he used to purport his claim. After Kauffman found out the truth, Brandt asked her for 500 pounds for a legal separation, but she could not afford it. He even tried to kidnap her a couple of times. Even though they separated, Kauffman was still legally married to the crook and spent several years trying to get the marriage properly annulled. Brandt died in 1780, freeing Kauffman, a devout Catholic, to marry again.
She did not waste much time. A year later, in 1781, Kauffman married Venetian artist Antonio Zucchi, who became her business manager. She was 39; he was 54. Around this time, Kauffman received an invitation to become the court painter to the King of Naples. She turned down the position and instead settled with her new husband in Rome, where she spent the last 25 years of her life. In 1782, Kauffman's father died and in 1795, her husband died. During her Rome years, Kauffman continued to contribute to the Royal Academy exhibitions, with her last showing in 1797. She produced little after this and died November 5, 1807, in Rome. Nearly two hundred years after her death, her paintings continued to hang in galleries throughout Europe and the United States.
Her pictures, however, lost some of their popularity after her death. Evaluating her paintings, Kauffman enthusiasts consistently note her gift of grace and considerable skill in composition. Critics most often downgrade her for her lack of variety and expression in her figures. Whatever the case, it is clear Kauffman influenced the people and the artists of her day. Her life's work can perhaps be best summed up by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an acquaintance of Kauffman's. In the book Girls Who Became Artists, authors Winifred and Frances Kirkland quote Goethe's assessment of her work: "The good Angelica has a most remarkable, and for a woman unheard–of, talent; one must see and value what she does and not what she leaves undone. There is much to learn from her, particularly as to work, for what she affects is really marvelous."
Angelica Kauffman: A Continental Artist in Georgian England, edited by Wendy Wassyng Roworth, Reaktion Books, 1992.
Kirkland, Winifred and Frances, Girls Who Became Artists, Books for Libraries Press Inc., 1934.
Manners, Lady Victoria and G.C. Williamson, Angelica Kauffmann, R.A., Her Life and Her Works, Hacker Art Books, 1976.
Opfell, Olga S., Special Visions: Profiles of Fifteen Women Artists from the Renaissance to the Present Day, McFarland & Co. Inc. Publishers, 1991.
Walch, Peter Sanborn, Angelica Kauffman, University Microfilms, 1969.
"Profile—Angelica Kauffman," National Museum of Women in the Arts,http://www.nmwa.org/collection/profile.asp?LinkID=476 (January 1, 2005).