In the coming weeks it will be difficult to visit any exhibition due to special precautions taken by subsequent countries as part of protection against the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us remain at home voluntarily to stop the spread of the epidemic. This entry is especially for you.
Just before the pandemic broke out, I was able to see the Angelica Kauffman exhibition: Kauffman. Artist, Superwoman, Influencer in Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf. The exhibition closes on May 25th and is planned to move later to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I would be happy to share my impressions with you, hoping that some of you will still be able to see it in one of the locations.
Angelica Kauffman, described by Johann Gottfried Herder as “probably the most educated woman in Europe”, was a highly regarded artist with neoclassical interests and liberal views. Admired for her artistic talents, comprehensive education and impeccable character, Kauffman enjoyed a reputation that was almost unattainable for women of her time. She became famous already in her youth and since then her career has only gained momentum. She received her artistic education in Italy, but gained fame and fortune in London as a historical painter and portraitist. In the last period of her life she opened one of the most desirable art studios in Rome. Her career surprises with the consistency and courage that few female artists could afford in her times.
The story of the painter opens with her self-portrait made at the age of only twelve. Kauffman was also admired at the time as a singer, educated under her mother’s guidance and performing at the courts of northern Italy. She presented herself with a note of the song she was then performing, composed by Pietro Metastasio. We might be a bit surprised by her dress, which was in line with the rococo fashion of the time – a silhouette closed in a corset, a white wig and heavily powdered skin. This is the first and only time we have seen the artist in such a “stiffened” edition .
More than forty years later, she created a picture showing the turning point in her career: Self-Portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting. After her mother’s death, the young Angelica chose a painting career, trained in her craft by her father. She showed herself between the personifications of Music and Painting as between two friends. She has to say goodbye to one of them by affectionately squeezing her hand, but decides to choose the company of the other and reach the temple of Fame, which silhouette is visible on a distant hill top. The picture has been painted by an over fifty-year-old author, undoubtedly to sum up her own artistic path. It is worth stressing here that Kauffman was not afraid to give expression to her talent and the position she achieved. This could have seemed problematic for more conservative art lovers, but if they wanted to buy a painting from her, they had to pay as much for it as for ones done by her contemporary male painters.
Kauffman’s fame was established in 1764, when she painted a portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the father of archaeology and custodian of the Vatican library and collection of antiquities in Rome. She decided to show him in a moment of inspiration, with the pen in his hand and his eyes focused on something outside the painting. Kauffman soon moved to London, where she created portraits commissioned by the aristocracy, members of the court and royal family. Her popularity grew so much that first her father and later also her husband – Antonio Zucchi helped her in the workshop.
Kauffman had an open mind for new inspirations. Around 1750 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, was the first to bring Turkish fascinations to Europe. The painter quickly used the new fashion to portrait her wealthy clients dressed à la turque. The Turkish way of clothing was extremely liberating for women and thanks to it, Europeans could reject their corsets and put on loose trousers without violating good manners.
An illustration of Angelica Kauffman’s unusual position is the fact that she, together with a still life painter – Mary Moser – were among the founders of the Royal Academy of the Arts in London in 1768 and remained the only women admitted to the Academy for the next 200 years. They also did not have the same freedoms as their colleagues – they could not attend meetings, voted only in writing, and worst of all, they did not have access to drawing classes that included nude models, even if this skill was considered the basic for the art of figural painting. In the composition depicting the assembly of the Academy founders, the presence of the two female artists was recorded only by means of their effigies placed on the wall.
However, Kauffman did not give up easily, she paid one of the models working at the Academy to pose for her privately. This caused quite a scandal among the academics who demanded an explanation from the model. He declared that he had not revealed anything but his arms and legs to the painter.
At the exhibition in Düsseldorf, for the first time, a very interesting element of the painter’s historical painting was excavated – the versatile, carefully selected scenes from the past in which heroines played the leading role. Hauffman reached for the stories from British history as well as from the times of the Roman Republic, mythology and literature. Her heroines are brave, loyal and willing to sacrifice, just like the heroes in the paintings of her contemporary Jacques-Louis David.
Kauffman moved back to Rome in 1782, where she quickly became a leading portraitist and painter of historical scenes. She ran a real art salon in Rome, which was visited by the great minds of her time, including various artists with whom she made deep friends. One of the most admired English actresses of the eighteenth century was Emma Hart, who was famous for her skillfully art of taking poses, gestures and facial expressions that were supposed to represent allegorical or historical figures. On the occasion of her wedding with Sir William Hamilton, the Envoy Extraordinary to the Kingdom of Naples, Kauffman painted her a portrait as a muse of comedy from Greek mythology – the Thalia. The actress enters the stage raising the curtain, but her face does not hide behind the mask, but reveals itself in all its authenticity.
Thanks to her talent, Angelica Kauffman has gained a fame that hardly anyone could match. Do you remember her childhood self-portrait, the one in a wig and quite a stiff outfit? 35 years later she immortalized her image as the highest priestess of art in the temple of Fame. This portrait hung in the self-portrait gallery in Uffizi, Florence, next to the image of Michelangelo, which was the highest honour of the time. How did she manage to do it? It was probably due to the exceptional care (and generosity) of Minerva, goddess of wisdom and protector of arts and sciences. The artist held her in particular esteem – Minerva’s victory over Neptune, the god of the seas, is shown on her belt buckle cameo clasping the dress of Kauffman, highest priestess of arts.