Angelica Kauffmann, an artist and a pioneer of women emancipation

Angelica Kauffmann was probably the most famous female artist of the 18th century. She was extremely popular portraitist, portraying European royalty and other affluent people, historical painter and engraver, whose style can be described as neoclassicism with a dash of rococo. Her works were thanks to engravings and many forgeries well-known in numerous homes across Europe. Her sayings were quoted, her dressing style copied, her beauty and intellect praised. Even at the twilight of her artistic career, this Swiss-born Austrian was still so famous, her funeral was directed (by a sculptor Antonio Canova)!



Picture of Aesop and Rhodope

A wunderkind

Angelica (sometimes Angelika) Kauffmann (for most of her life signed as Kaufman) was a child prodigy. Thanks to her mother Cleophea she learned four languages before the age of ten (German, Italian, English, French).

But it was her father, Joseph Johann, a muralist, who introduced her into the world of art. He traveled a lot and Angelica accompanied and assisted him as a kid. At twelve years she already had her first commissions for portraits.

At fifteen she painted wall decorations in churches while her father did the frescoes. Her talent couldn’t stay unnoticed. When she stayed in Italy for a few years, she became very popular among visitors from England. A wife of English Ambassador in Venice invited her to England, where she soon earned enough money with portraying to buy a house.

There she could focus on her biggest passion – historical painting (like the one of Esop and Rhodope about), which was at the time considered as one of the most demanding artistic skills.

Why? The artist had to be very well educated in history and literature and had superb technique, what was especially hard for women, who were not allowed to study male nudes.

When Angelika moved to England, she was already an elected member of art academies in Bologna, Venice, Firenze and Rome (a great achievement for a lady and she was also among the youngest members in history). Thanks to the promotion of Sir Joshua Reynolds she also became one of the founding members of Royal Academy.

She was one of only two women (the other was a portraitist Mary Moser) and they stayed the only ones for the next two centuries!

But we should know painting, where she excelled, was not something that she took for granted. In 1792 she even painted a picture where she portrayed a dilemma which she faced after her mother’s death.



Allegory of poetry and music


Music or painting? She wasn’t only skilled with a paintbrush (and etching), she was also a very talented musician with a beautiful soprano.


An emancipation

Although the art was one of the rare areas where women could ‘compete’ with men, Angelica Kauffman had to overcome many obstacles to live and work as she wanted. In the first years her father was her manager, but after her move to England, she married a man who soon proved to be an imposter (she married him believing he was a rich Swedish Count Frederick de Horn but was only a servant, and he was actually already married!) and the young couple became estranged after only a few weeks.

She had many friends and was a non-stop targeted by gossips. Although her name was connected with several famous artists, it is very hard to prove who was really her lover, if any. Nevertheless, she was constantly involved in all sorts of scandals but dealt with them quite effectively.

When, for example, Nathaniel Hone included her fictitious act in a satirical picture where he mocked her friendship with Reynolds, she openly demanded from him to cover the female character with paint and he had to obey that.

There were also other interesting situations. When Johann Zoffany made a commemorative painting of Academicians of Royal Academy, it was decided the founding members should be portrayed around a nude male model, what was inappropriate for ladies. So Moser and Kauffmann were included as – portraits on hanging pictures!

When she married for the second time (after the death of her first husband), she chose another painter, Antonio Zucchi, who also became her manager, but they signed a special contract which guaranteed her to control the money she earned (in the 17th century a wife was legally treated almost as a husband’s property and so was her money).

Strong, focused, yet still feminine Angelika Kaufman became one of the role models for women for centuries to come. Of course, she inspired men as well. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (in her portrait below), one of her close friends described her as probably the smartest woman of the century.



Portrait of Goethe


If you want to find more about Angelica Kauffmann, the web is full of interesting facts about her (this site is probably best to start for further investigations) and there are also many more or less fact-based books about her life. Kauffman’s life and works are definitely worth to explore.