Angelica Kauffman was a superstar of the eighteenth-century European art world, but did she visit Brighton? Alexandra Loske takes a closer look at a pioneering artist in our collection.
My personal connection with the Royal Pavilion and Museums began with a grand, sumptuous but also slightly mysterious painting in our collection, a portrait of an unnamed dark-haired woman in a beautiful red dress, by arguably the most famous female painter working in London in the 1760s and ‘70s. When I was studying for my M.A. in Art History at Sussex in 2006, I chose this painting as a case study for an essay on the fashion for exotic dress in Georgian portraiture. I fell in love with the painting and its creator and keep returning to both. Portrait of a Lady was painted in the 1770s or early ‘80s by the multi-talented Swiss-Austrian artist Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), who spent fifteen hugely successful years (from 1766 to 1781) at the heart of the British art scene. She is one of my favourite eighteenth-century women, and there is a strong likelihood that she visited Sussex, perhaps even Brighton.
We are extremely lucky to have in our Fine Art collection three oil paintings by the woman Sir Joshua Reynolds, the most revered artist at the time, intriguingly referred to as ‘Miss Angel’ in his diaries. There were rumours that he was in love with her, and he may even have proposed marriage to the charming, intelligent, hard-working prodigee from Austria. It is quite unusual for a regional municipal museum founded in the Victorian period to own works by Kauffman. They are more likely to be found in country houses and national collections, as many were acquired or commissioned by aristocratic collectors and displayed in their country estates or London houses. We also have numerous prints after Kauffman’s works in our collections of works on paper, including a portrait of Queen Charlotte ‘raising the genius of the Fine Arts’. The angelic genius was possibly modelled on her eldest son, the future George IV – our very own “Prinny” – then a very young child. I wasn’t able to take a picture of this print before the museum closure, but here is a copy at the British Museum.
We also have a delightful drawing of a classical head among the works on paper, which is only cautiously attributed to Kauffman, but very typical of her style and subject matter.
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.’ Yet, despite her wit, intellect and talent, she married an impostor who was after her considerable wealth, and she was criticised by some because her male figures apparently looked too feeble and feminine.
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 moved to London in 1766, which at the time was very attractive to 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, and set up a studio in Golden Square. Her father followed several months later.
Kauffman took 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, setting the London rumour mill ablaze. In 1768 she became one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy, with Reynolds as the first President. In the famous painting by Zoffany showing all founding members of the Royal Academy in an imagined life drawing class with male nude models (Royal Collection, RCIN 400747), Kauffman is depicted – alongside her friend Mary Moser, the other woman in the group – as portraits hanging on the wall. It was not deemed appropriate for women to attend life drawing classes, so even in an imagined setting the women were banished from the room. After Kauffman and Moser the Royal Academy did not elect any more female members until 1936 (!), when Laura Knight (another artist in our collection) was given full membership. It gives me particular pleasure to write this updated version of an earlier blog post in the year that the Royal Academy, for the first time in their 252-year history, elected a female President, the abstract artist Rebecca Salter.
Kaufffman’s 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. Apart from Portrait of a Woman we have an important classical image deriving from Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope at her Loom (dated 1764). This is the earliest known painting of Penelope by Kauffman, and we are frequently asked to lend it to exhibitions. 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. We don’t know who bought or commissioned them initially, but they were eventually donated to Hove Museum in 1937 by a Mrs Burges Watson. No 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.
Of the two, Portrait of a Woman is the more mysterious one, as it shows neither an identified sitter, nor a classical figure, and for a while it was unclear whether the woman was dressed in Turkish or Neapolitan dress. Recent research has shown that the lady is most probably dressed in Neapolitan rather than Turkish garb. Kauffmann had an interest in traditional local costume from early in her career, painting several self-portraits wearing traditional Swiss-German dress. The painting could be considered a costume painting, illustrating the Kauffman’s own interest in the dress of local Italians during her stay in Naples. It may also reflect a general fascination with Naples among the Georgian aristocracy. If you look closely, you can just about see the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius in the background. A near identical version of it is in the collection of Saltram House in Devon, acquired in the 1760s by John Parker, 1st Baron Boringdon, and his wife Theresa, who were great patrons of Kauffman. It was not unusual for an eighteenth-century artist to create several versions or copies of an image.
A third oil painting by Kauffman in the quarter-length portrait of Mrs Marriott, the philanthropist I wrote about in my last post for the 100 Pioneering Sussex Women project, and it is this one that makes me wonder whether we can claim Kauffman as a Sussex woman. Did she visit Mrs Marriott or her daughters in Brighton? Given that Kauffman had several clients in the south of England and lived in London, it seems likely that during her fifteen years here she would at some point have made the short journey to the closest ‘watering place’ to London. Sadly though, we have no written proof for this. Although Kauffman wrote many letters – in French, German, English, and Italian – much of her correspondence was destroyed or lost, and little survived from before her move to Rome in 1781. We may not have evidence of Kauffman going for a dip in the sea in Sussex, but we can enjoy several splendid examples of her work here in Brighton Museum and other nearby collections, such as Petworth House and Goodwood in West Sussex.
Portrait of a Woman and the portrait of Mrs Marriott are currently on display in Brighton Museum, and you will be able to see them once the museum reopens to the public.