Swiss-born Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) was known as a child prodigy who, before the age of 15, was accepting commissions in portraiture and was assisting her father with church murals.  In addition to speaking four foreign languages fluently, Angelica Kauffmann was renowned as a singer and wrestled to choose between music and art, as memorialized in one of her most famous paintings, Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting.

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting, 1792.  Oil on canvas, approx. 60″ by 83″.  Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

This Kauffmann painting recalls the popular 17th century theme in which Hercules, at the Crossroads, must choose between Luxury and Fame.

She audaciously rejected working in genres deemed acceptable to female artists, such as still life, to pursue history painting, the field that was the most lucrative, prestigious, and male-dominated in the 18th century.  In 1758, Kauffmann and her father toured Italy to study famous paintings and works of old masters; four years later, she settled in Rome and catered to travelers, many of whom were Englishmen on the Grand Tour. It was there Angelica Kauffmann was exposed to artists like Benjamin West (1738-1820) who were exploring the emerging style of Neoclassicism.

Her reputation in England was bolstered by her portrait of the English actor David Garrick (Does George Costanza of Seinfield look like him, or what?!), possibly the most frequently painted Englishman in the 18th century. Among the famous painters who did portraits of Garrick were:

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds
  • Thomas Gainsborough
  • William Hogarth
  • Benjamin Wilson
  • Nathaniel Dance
  • Pompeo Batoni
  • Pietro Longhi

David Garrick was even painted more often than the king, George III (1).

Angelica Kauffmann, David Garrick.  Oil on canvas, 1764.Burghley House, Lincolnshire, England.

With the encouragement of  Sir Joshua ReynoldsAngelica Kauffmann relocated to London which, like Rome, was a center of Neoclassicism. Kauffmann was dedicated to popularizing history paintings in Great Britain; there were no other female artists then working in such grand scale.  She opted for heroines drawn from classical history like Penelope, the wife of Odyssey who remained faithful during his 20 year absence; and Lucretia, another paragon of female virtue who committed suicide after being raped.

Socially adept, admired for her diligence, and recognized for her paintings done for interiors designed by the leading architect, Robert Adam, Angelica Kauffmann was one of the 36 founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768.  Much ballyhoo was made of the fact that Kauffmann and another Swiss painter, Mary Moser, were founders… yet the history of painting reveals how flimsy this honor actually was:

  1. Just four years later in 1772, Johann Zoffany painted The Academicians of the Royal Academy grouped around a nude model.  Because all female painters were prohibited from working from a nude model, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser are present only as portraits on the upper right.
  2. Adding insult to injury, no other female painters were elected to the Royal Academy until Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)– 115 years later.
Angelica Kauffmann was commissioned in 1778 to created four allegorical paintings for the Royal Academy’s new lecture hall; today, these four Kauffmann paintings are in the vestibule of Burlington House, the home of the Royal Academy.
Angelica Kauffmann was not ultimately successful in endearing Neoclassicism and history paintings to the British, and had to augment her income with portraiture.  Nonetheless, she leaves a legacy in the history of art as a famous artist with an international clientele.  She was one of a handful of female artists who were financially successful and competed on par with male painters.

1. JSTOR.  David Garrick and English Painting.  Lance Bertelsen

Note on spelling: Although Angelica Kauffmann signed her paintings as “Kauffman”, the leading biographies of her spell it “Kauffmann”, as noted in Women Artists 1550-1950 by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin.

Survey of the History of Painting

Curious to learn about many of the most famous paintings? You can either peruse all the leading art history textbooks to see what art historians choose … OR… you can let Masterpiece Cards do it for you! 

Each of 250 paintings is reproduced on a 4″ by 6″ Card; on its reverse are facts and an art historian’s commentary about the work.

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