Angelica Kauffman, was a Swiss Neoclassical painter who had a successful career in London and Rome. Remembered primarily as a history painter, Kauffmann was a skilled portraitist, landscape and decoration painter.
While Kauffman produced many types of art, she identified herself primarily as a history painter, an unusual designation for a woman artist in the 18th century. History painting was considered the most elite and lucrative category in academic painting during this time period and, under the direction of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Royal Academy made a strong effort to promote it to a native audience more interested in commissioning and buying portraits and landscapes. Despite the popularity that Kauffman enjoyed in British society, and her success there as an artist, she was disappointed by the relative apathy of the British towards history painting.
History painting, as defined in academic art theory, was classified as the most elevated category. Its subject matter was the representation of human actions based on themes from history, mythology, literature, and scripture. This required extensive learning in biblical and Classical literature, knowledge of art theory and a practical training that included the study of anatomy from the male nude. Most women were denied access to such training, especially the opportunity to draw from nude models; yet Kauffman managed to cross the gender boundary to acquire the necessary skill to build a reputation as a successful history painter who was admired by colleagues and eagerly sought by patrons.
Writing from Rome in August 1764 to his friend Franke, Winckelmann refers to her popularity; she was then painting his picture, a half-length; of which she also made an etching. She spoke Italian as well as German, he says, and expressed herself with facility in French and English – one result of the last-named accomplishment being that she became a popular portraitist for British visitors to Rome. “She may be styled beautiful,” he adds, “and in singing may vie with our best virtuosi”. In 1765, her work appeared in England in an exhibition of the Free Society of Artists. She moved to England shortly after and established herself as a leading artist.
She was amongst the signatories to the petition to the king for the establishment of the Royal Academy. In its first catalogue of 1769 she appears with “R.A.” after her name (an honour she shared with one other woman, Mary Moser); and she contributed the Interview of Hector and Andromache, and three other classical compositions.
She continued at intervals to contribute to the Royal Academy in London, her last exhibit being in 1797. After this she produced little, and in 1807 she died in Rome, being honoured by a splendid funeral under the direction of Canova. The entire Academy of St Luke, with numerous ecclesiastics and virtuosi, followed her to her tomb in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, and, as at the burial of Raphael, two of her best pictures were carried in procession