Angelica Kauffman: an eighteenth century ‘Wunderkind’

Next week, Dr Alexandra Loske will give a bite-size talk in Brighton Museum on artist Angelica Kauffman, using works in our Fine Art collection. In this post, Alexandra introduces the celebrated painter and her reception throughout Europe.

Courtesy of Alexandra Loske
Courtesy of Alexandra Loske

Works by the eighteenth century continental artist Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) can be found in many country houses and national collections. It is considerably rarer to find works by her in regional and municipal collections. Brighton is very lucky to have two large and important paintings by the woman Sir Joshua Reynolds intriguingly referred to as ‘Miss Angel’ in his diaries. They are currently on display in the Fine Art Gallery and on 28 February Dr Alexandra Loske will give a ‘Bite-size Museum’ talk on the artist and the two paintings. At the height of her career Kauffman was famous, celebrated, and successful across Europe, but she was also the subject of considerable gossip and not immune to scandal. A contemporary of Kauffman remarked in the 1780s that ‘the whole world has gone Angelica-mad’. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder described her as ‘A heavenly creature … perhaps the most cultivated woman in the whole of Europe.’


Angelica Kauffman was born in 1741 in Chur, Switzerland, to German speaking parents, but grew up in Schwarzenberg in nearby Austria, frequently moving within the area linking Italy and countries north of the Alps. She would later in life refer to her origin as Austrian or German, never Swiss. An only child, she received a lot of attention and, not common for girls, a good education from her parents. Growing up in this multi-national environment she became fluent in several languages. After her mother’s early death in 1757 she assisted her father, who was a painter, and began travelling to other parts of Italy with him. The lure of Italy in the eighteenth century mainly manifested itself in an interest and idealisation of classical antiquity. Kauffman spent much time there developing her skills as a neo-classical painter, whilst trying to gain a foothold in the lucrative practice of ‘Grand Tour’ portraits. In the early 1760s she made contacts which would prove useful later in her career. Among these portraits produced while in Italy are those of actor David Garrick, art historian Johann Winckelmann, and the British Consul in Naples Isaac Jamineau.


Kauffman and her father moved to London in 1766, at the time attractive for continental painters because of its thriving intellectual scene and lucrative art market. Astonishingly, she made the initial journey without her father, only accompanied by Lady Wentworth. Her father followed her several months later. Kauffman spent the next fifteen years in London, taking the English art scene by storm, establishing herself as a portraitist, and later as a co-designer of Neo-classical interiors. Within a few months of her arrival she had secured royal commissions and collaborated with Sir Joshua Reynolds. There were even rumours that he had asked for her hand in marriage. In 1768 she became one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy.
Her time in England came to an end in 1781, when she married the Italian painter Antonio Zucchi and subsequently returned to Italy with him, continuing to earn a living as a highly sought after painter, receiving commissions from royal circles and befriending many European artists and intellectuals. She died in Rome in 1807, twelve years after her husband, and is buried in the Basilica di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.

The two large oil paintings by Kauffman in our collection are both full length portraits of seated women: Portrait of a Woman (c.1775) and Penelope at her Loom (1764).

Penelope at her Loom



Both paintings are likely to have come out of the context of the ‘Grand Tour’, having probably been commissioned by members of the aristocracy during their visits to Italy, or shortly after. The paintings were eventually donated to Hove Museum in 1937. The only record in our archives regarding the acquisition of the painting is a newspaper cutting from the West Sussex Gazette, which provides only rudimentary information on its previous owner, Mrs Burges Watson.


No other records were kept about the donor or the circumstances of the donation, which is surprising, given the importance and size of these paintings. It is possible that some documentation was lost during evacuation precautions in Sussex during World War II.

Portrait of a Woman

In my ‘Bite-Size Museum’ talk on 28 February I will explain why the two full length figure paintings by Kauffman in our collection are so important and tell the audience more about the artist’s extraordinary life. There will also be a chance to see a portrait of Kauffman after Sir Joshua Reynolds, engraved in 1780 by Francesco Bartolozzi.

A third oil painting by Kauffman in our collection is not currently on display. It is a quarter-length portrait of a ‘Mrs Marriott’. This is not as large and impressive as the other two works, but of particular local interest, as it was Mrs Marriott who financed the building of the first six ‘Percy’ alms-houses at the bottom of Elm Grove in 1795, in memory of her two daughters, who had died tragically young.


Mrs Marriott
‘Percy’ Alms Houses. Courtesy of the ‘James Gray collection / Regency Society’


In 1992 Brighton Museum and Art Gallery staged an important exhibition of the work, Angelica Kauffman – A Continental Artist in Georgian England, which was co-curated by the American scholar Wendy Wassyng Roworth.


By Dr Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator