You would not know that two of the 34 founders of the Royal Academy of Arts in London were women based on Johan Zoffany’s famed painting of its members. In The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1770–71), Zoffany depicts a vaunted studio with some 30-plus male artists who consort with two nude male models, chat with each other, and admire the artworks on view. Almost unnoticed are two portraits that hang above them and depict the artists Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, whose images appear as avatars, as though these painters were unworthy of joining a room bursting at its seams with men.
Having been the go-to painter for the British aristocracy, Kauffman was the most famous portraitist in 18th-century Europe—male or female—and Zoffany’s scene would have been construed as an insult. And this was not the only one she was forced to weather over the course of her career, which lasted for almost half a century. She was often plagued with allegations that she had romantic liaisons with famous male artists—Nathaniel Hone once satirized her close friendship with artist Joshua Reynolds, portraying Kauffman as his plaything; the painting was rejected by the Royal Academy amid an outcry.
Nevertheless, Kauffman maintained a powerful social network that included theorist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and sculptor Antonio Canova (who later oversaw aspects of her funeral in 1807), and she saw unusual market success for a female artist of her era. During her day, Kauffman, who was born in Chur, Switzerland, in 1741 and was based in London and Rome for much of her life, was considered a key artist of the Neoclassicism movement, which revived Greco-Roman artistic tropes as part of an Enlightenment-era push for rationality and reason during the 18th century. In fact, she even became so popular that her studio became a stop on the Grand Tour, a trip through Europe that was considered an educational rite of passage for upper-class men. Philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder once called Kauffman “possibly the most cultivated woman in Europe.”
Yet, in the centuries since, Kauffman has generally received less attention than her male Neoclassical colleagues such as Reynolds, Canova, and Jacques-Louis David. Though art historian Linda Nochlin named Kauffman as one of the many female masters of yesteryear in her famed 1971 essay for ARTnews “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?“, her important contributions remained underrecognized. Kauffman’s paintings have never sold for more than $1 million at auction, and her art has rarely been the subject of major shows. More recently, however, that has started to change, as interest in the artist is growing once again. In 2006, art historian Amy Rosenthal published a tome about Kauffman that helped kindle curiosity, and the Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf, Germany, and the Royal Academy in London jointly organized a 100-work traveling retrospective of Kauffman that opened in Germany in January. (It was due to travel to London in June, but that is no longer the case, due to the coronavirus.) To survey Kauffman’s trailblazing art, below is a guide to five of her famous works and their backstories.
Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1775)
Kauffman’s strong reputation for creating incisive portraits helped her become one of the first female members of the Royal Academy (and one of the last ones to join for a century and a half afterward). In this portrait, which scholars initially thought was meant to represent Kauffman herself, she depicts a woman whose identity remains unknown; because of her rolled-up paper and her sculpture of the goddess Minerva, who signifies wisdom, some have suggested she may have been an intellectual. Regardless of who the subject is, historians consider the work, now owned by Tate in London, an important image attesting to the rising interest in women’s education in 18th-century England.
Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Helen of Troy (ca. 1780–82)
During the 18th century, history paintings—large-scale canvases depicting episodes from ancient times—were considered the highest art form, and Kauffman excelled in that mode, which was then considered to be one reserved largely for men. In this one, Kauffman depicts the Greek painter Zeuxis getting ready to paint an image of Helen of Troy—without Helen sitting before him. He goes about it by cherrypicking the most perfect features of five models and combining them to create an ideal female representation. The painting, now exhibited in a library at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has provoked debate among scholars: Was Kauffman merely conforming to the gender norms of her day using hazy sfumato brushwork to sensualize and objectify these women, or is a more subversive commentary about the male gaze at play here?
Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, Pointing to her Children as Her Treasures (ca. 1785)
Relying once again on a moment from ancient history for her subject matter, here Kauffman depicts the second-century BCE Roman woman Cornelia in a genre known as exemplum virtutis, or an “example of virtue.” Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus and the mother of the politicians Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, was seen as the pinnacle of virtue in ancient times. Here, Kauffman explores what constitutes a treasure. For the woman at right, it’s jewelry, which she holds up to show Cornelia. For Cornelia, it’s her sons. Debates about Kauffman’s aesthetic and political conservatism have focused on this picture—Cornelia’s daughter, Sempronia, who does not exist in the original narrative portrayed here, is notably not grouped with Cornelia’s treasures, and if anything, the girl seems most interested in the sparkling jewels being displayed before her. It’s possible, however, that, in leading her away from the materialistic woman, Cornelia will move Sempronia toward virtue. The work is currently owned and displayed by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
Self-portrait of the Artist Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting (1794)
There was a point in Kauffman’s career when it seemed as though she was destined to become a musician. The daughter of a painter, she was educated in the arts, and she was seen early on as a musical prodigy prized for her soprano voice. Ultimately, however, she went on to become a painter, and this painting allegorizes her struggle to choose between the two professions, with the artist in the center flanked by personified figures representing music and painting. The one representing painting holds a palette in one hand and points Kauffman toward a Greco-Roman temple with the other, signifying her move toward Neoclassicism. The work now resides in the collection of the Nostell Priory in Wragby, England.
Religion Attended by the Virtues (ca. 1799–1801)
Kauffman produced this allegorical scene for a patron in England, where her works enjoyed an unusual amount of visibility after she departed for Italy because they were reproduced in the form of prints. As it happens, however, all that currently exists of the work are engravings of it. One of the first works ever to enter the United Kingdom’s national collection, it was last seen in 1941 in Plymouth, England, where it may have been destroyed during Nazi air raids. Tate Britain in London has launched an official search for it. But the work—or, at least, its memory—endures, and experts have suggested that it was likely Kauffman’s largest work, filled with life-size figures that would have acted as a master class for her acolytes in how to paint allegories. Martin Myrone, senior curator of Tate Britain, once told the Guardian, “It was regarded as Kauffman’s last artistic triumph.”