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London Art | Angelica Kauffman at the Royal Academy

I’ve been researching Angelica Kauffman and her London self-portraits for a few years now — and have now completed my PhD! — and it’s been my dream to see this exhibition of her works in person. The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London had planned to hold this exhibition in 2020, but the pandemic came and disrupted these plans. I was so excited when I found out that the Royal Academy was going to re-stage the exhibition Angelica Kauffman this year, and so I absolutely had to visit London to see it!

I think it goes without saying that I loved the show, and to me it’s worth 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. While I had seen a couple of Kauffman’s artworks before, it was amazing to see so much more in person (where I had only viewed them in books or online).

| Cover picture: Detail of Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting |

Note: Artwork titles are provided here according to those stated in the exhibition. Throughout my research, I’ve noticed that the titles of Kauffman’s artworks are regularly updated.

Before getting into the rest of this post, I also wanted to share about my guest post on the Art Herstory blog. If interested to read more about Kauffman from another perspective, have a read of my guest post titled ‘Angelica Kauffman: Art, Music and Poetry’ here!

Opening: Self-Portraits

Angelica Kauffman, Self-Portrait in all’antica Dress, 1787

The exhibition opens with three of Kauffman’s self-portraits, all dating to the 1780s. The highlight is her magisterial Self-Portrait in all’antica Dress, loaned from the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy. The word ‘all’antica’ means ‘in the style of the antique’ to evoke the fashions of classical antiquity.

Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait in the Traditional Costume of the Bregenz Forest, 1781
Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait with Stylus and Portfolio, 1784

Kauffman’s Portraits: 1760s-1770s

The exhibition follows a roughly chronological order, tracing Kauffman’s life and artworks produced throughout her long career. A few key details to know about her: Kauffman (1741–1807) was Swiss-Austrian; she spent her early years training as an artist in Italy, and moved to London in 1766.

Angelica Kauffman, Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1764

One of Kauffman’s early portraits is the Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose writings on classical Greek art and sculpture makes him one of history’s earliest art historians. As a young artist in her twenties, Kauffman began to make a name for herself with this portrait.

Detail of Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1764
Angelica Kauffman, Portrait of Martha Cocks in Turkish Dress with Embroidery Frame, 1772
Detail of Portrait of Martha Cocks in Turkish Dress with Embroidery Frame, 1772

I loved seeing Kauffman’s portraits close up, so I include these photos of details of the paintings! Some of the details that stood out to me were Kauffman’s use of colours, and the varying textures of the fashions is just spectacular. My favourite among these is Portrait of Martha Cocks in Turkish Dress with Embroidery Frame!

Kauffman’s History Paintings: 1760s-1770s

Angelica Kauffman, Penelope at her Loom, 1764
Detail of Penelope at her Loom, 1764
Angelica Kauffman, Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Anthony, c. 1769–70

Other than working in portraits, Kauffman was especially ambitious in pursuing the art of history painting. History painting is a genre where the subjects of painting are taken from classical texts, mythology, and biblical stories. Penelope, Cleopatra, and Rinaldo and Armida are examples of characters that feature in Kauffman’s choice of history paintings.

Angelica Kauffman, Rinaldo and Armida in the Magic Garden, c. 1772
Angelica Kauffman, Armida Begs Rinaldo in Vain not to Leave Her, 1776

I loved seeing this pair of paintings that feature the same story of Armida and Rinaldo shown side by side. They belong to the collection of Kenwood House in London, but are usually displayed in different sections of the House. Seeing these two paintings together, it was so interesting to see the two main characters but also the two soldiers-onlookers appearing in the background once again…

Kauffman as a Royal Academician

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768, and Kauffman was included among the 36 founding members. We also know that Kauffman and Mary Moser were the only two female Royal Academicians among the 36. Based on this fact, it’s also so important that Angelica Kauffman is finally the subject of a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy in its long history!

Johan Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771–72

Zoffany’s painting of The Academicians of the Royal Academy is now almost legendary, depicting the male Academicians in the setting of a life class (which never happened in real life), while the two women are shown in portraits hanging on the wall. Zoffany’s group portrait is one of a few works by other artists included in this Kauffman retrospective. I loved having the chance to finally see this famous work in person!

Angelica Kauffman, Portrait of Joshua Reynolds, 1767

Kauffman’s portrait of her friend, and the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds is stunning. It was only by seeing it in person that I could finally spot Kauffman’s signature along the bottom of the blank canvas situated behind Reynolds — it’s hard to detect in photos!

The Ceiling Paintings

Kauffman’s four ceiling paintings of Invention, Composition, Design, Colouring were commissioned by the RA in time for the opening of their new premises in Somerset House in 1780 (which is now the beautiful Courtauld Gallery). The paintings are now placed on the ceiling of the RA’s entrance foyer in Burlington House. But in this rare instance, the paintings of Design and Composition are exhibited on the wall! Invention and Colouring are currently on show at the (also excellent) exhibition Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520–1920 at Tate Britain.

Angelica Kauffman, Design, 1780
Angelica Kauffman, Composition, 1780

Wonderful to see these paintings up close instead of squinting up at the ceiling… Among the artworks pictured here, the ceiling paintings are the only paintings by Angelica Kauffman in the collection of the Royal Academy.

I also thought it was a nice touch to include Kauffman’s grisaille sketches of the ceiling paintings on the side. These sketches show how Kauffman initially worked out the compositions of her paintings.

Grisaille sketch of Design
Grisaille sketch of Composition

But placing these grisaille sketches behind the glass frames also made them hard to see clearly… I had viewed these drawings two years ago at the V&A in their Prints and Drawings Study Room, and they are absolutely stunning (which these photos don’t manage to capture!).

Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait with Bust of Minerva, c. 1780–84

This Self-portrait with Bust of Minerva is displayed next to the ceiling paintings too, which is an interesting choice! The self-portrait is dated to circa 1780–84, which means that Kauffman may have started on the painting while she was still in London until 1781, before settling in Rome for the rest of her life.

Kauffman in Rome: From 1782

The last section of the exhibition displays works by Kauffman made later in her career, after she moved to Rome in 1782. Based on the paintings we’ve already seen, it’s no surprise that Kauffman’s reputation as a well-known artist was secured.

Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry, 1782

This gem of a self-portrait also belongs to the collection of Kenwood House, and it’s so nice to see it included in this exhibition too! Kauffman depicts herself on the left as the ‘character of Design’, while the figure on the right represents the allegory of Poetry.

Angelica Kauffman, Death of Alcestis, 1790
Angelica Kauffman, Ulysses on the Island of Circe, 1793

These are a few more of Kauffman’s history paintings from the 1790s, alongside one biblical picture depicting Christ and the Samaritan Woman. In the same room, the exhibition concludes with several gorgeous portraits!

Angelica Kauffman, Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1796

Kauffman’s Portraits: 1790s

Angelica Kauffman, Portrait of Henrietta Maria Hill, later Brudenell-Bruce and Marchioness of Ailesbury, as the Muse Erato, 1792
Angelica Kauffman, Portrait of Charles Brudenell-Bruce, later 1st Marquess of Ailesbury, 1795

I especially love this portrait in the details of the sitter’s clothes. In this Portrait of Charles Brudenell-Bruce he wears a costume in the style of Van Dyck, evoking seventeenth-century fashions. The lace collar and the undulating lines of his coat are just so refined.

Angelica Kauffman, Portraits of Domenico Morghen and Maddalena Volpato as Muses of Tragedy and Comedy, 1791
Angelica Kauffman, Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy, 1791

A highlight piece is also this Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy. Emma Hamilton can be likened as a celebrity of the late eighteenth century. Apart from being known for her beauty, she also developed her performances of the ‘Attitudes’, where she struck varied poses inspired by classical sculpture. Here Kauffman depicts her performing as Thalia, the Muse of Comedy.

Emma Hamilton remains a notorious, yet fascinating, figure of her time (due to her history of love affairs), and she is the subject of many portraits. While this portrait belongs to a private collection, elsewhere in London you will be able to see her at the National Portrait Gallery, Kenwood House and Tate Britain.

Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting

Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794

I was so excited to see this beautiful, massive self-portrait in person! Painted late in her life and career, Kauffman (in the centre) reflects on her early decision to pursue the path of painting (figure on the right) instead of music (figure on the left). The painting is exceptional because it combines the genres of history painting, self-portraiture, and allegory all in one complete image.

I think the large size of the painting also matters, as it is a sign of artistic skill. Reserving such a large canvas for Kauffman’s own self-portrait seems to show that this image was significant for her too.

Detail of Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794
Detail of Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794

Plus look at all those details! It was also a lovely surprise to finally realise that Kauffman included her signature on the coloured sash of her dress.

Detail of Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794

My absolute favourite artwork within this exhibition Angelica Kauffman at the Royal Academy of Arts would be the Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting. I may also be biased, but I especially loved seeing Kauffman’s self-portraits, then my next favourites are her portraits.

I wished I could spend even more time in the exhibition (I was inside for 1.5 hours!), but putting this post together makes me so happy that I viewed so many artworks by Angelica Kauffman all in one place at the Royal Academy, after so many years — it’s a surreal feeling! The exhibition closes today at the end of June, but I also bought the exhibition catalogue and a postcard of Self-portrait with Bust of Minerva as souvenirs! If the RA had printed a Kauffman artwork on a tote bag, I would have totally bought it too!

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