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Exhibition Review: Angelica Kauffman

Considering she’s one of two female founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in London (the other being Mary Moser), it’s surprising how little I’ve seen of Angelica Kauffman’s art. My excitement when the RA announced an exhibition completely dedicated to Kauffman – tracing her path as a child prodigy, her time in Italy and England as one of the most sought-after painters in Europe, and her involvement in the RA – was sky high. And the exhibition did not disappoint! 

The exhibition is split into four sections: 

  • An introduction to Kauffman
  • Her journey from Italy to England
  • Her association with the Royal Academy
  • Her return to Rome 

Born in Switzerland, 1741, Kauffman was born to a poor but incredibly skilled couple. From her mother, Cleophea Lutz, she learned to speak four languages fluently – German, Italian, French and English. She trained as an assistant to her father, Joseph Johann Kauffman, who was a muralist and painter. Kauffman was a talented singer and musician, and at an early age she was forced to choose between opera and art, inevitably choosing the latter when a Catholic priest told her opera was a place filled with ‘seedy people’. 

When her mother died, Kauffman and her father moved to Milan. Over the next few years, the two travelled across the Italian Peninsula, moving from Florence to Naples, then Rome, Bologna, and Venice. As she travelled, word of her talent spread, and she became one of Europe’s leading artists, painting portraits of queens, countesses, actors, and socialites. While in Venice, she was persuaded by the wife of a British ambassador, Lady Wentworth, to accompany her to London. 

Within months of her arrival in London, Kauffman met Joshua Reynolds who became one of her closest friends (he called her ‘Miss. Angel’). They often responded to each other’s art and you’re able to pick out Reynolds’ responses in the main collection after the exhibition. With thirty-four other artists, they founded the Royal Academy in 1768. Their intention was to raise the profile of history-painting artists in Britain.

It was as a history painter that Kauffman identified herself, but it was a predominantly male genre. It required an understanding of history, mythology, literature, and religion, and artists needed to study anatomy, specifically of the male nude. The latter meant women were normally denied access, but Kauffman managed to get across the gender boundary. She reinvented the genre of history painting, focusing on female protagonists. Her main issue became that of location: history painting wasn’t held in high esteem in Britain and patrons were difficult to find, so, despite having a list of patrons that included Queen Charlotte herself, Kauffman returned to Rome. 

Rome was at the heart of the Grand Tour when Kauffman arrived, and she found herself inundated with commissions. After twenty-five years in Rome, Angelica Kauffman died. It was Canova who was commissioned to direct her funeral, one inspired by Raphael Sanzio’s and included the entire Academy of St. Luke following her body to her tomb in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte with her greatest paintings carried in procession. 

The Royal Academy’s exhibition covers all this and more. It’s one of the best exhibitions I’ve been to at the RA, but now I am desperate for one on Mary Moser (hint, hint, RA!). 

Angelica Kauffman will remain at her Royal Academy until 30th June 2024. For more information and to book your tickets to the exhibition, click here

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