Angelica Kauffman: an overly polite account of the female Raphael

Angelica Kauffman's Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting
Angelica Kauffman's Self-portrait at the Crossroads between the Arts of Music and Painting (1794) - National Trust Images/John Hammond

Better late than never? At last, the neoclassical Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) gets her own solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, more than 250 years after she was one of its founding members. Yet, this three-room show is hardly a hit in the manner of the National Gallery’s barnstorming, Me-Too-conscious retrospective for the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi of 2020.

On paper, it must have seemed like a no-brainer: a demonstration for a feminist age, following centuries of misogynistic harrumphing about the supposed amateurism of women artists, that, historically, professional female painters could reach the top. A list of this cosmopolitan networker’s clients is a Who’s Who of Europe’s 18th-century rulers: the family of George III, Pope Pius VI, Catherine the Great. For 15 years, she lived in London, but ended up in Rome, where her funeral was arranged by the great sculptor Antonio Canova.

She was adept at portraits – but also excelled at history painting, which she expanded by depicting obscure scenes from Britain’s past, and focusing on female protagonists. Moreover, she depicted herself so often – agelessly, with wide brown eyes, chestnut ringlets, and pinkish cheeks – that it’s easy to sympathise with her. (Supposedly, this “beautiful soul” was as angelic as her name implied.) It’s refreshing to behold a female subject who is doing the looking, and isn’t there simply to be looked at.

Angelica Kauffman's Self-portrait with Bust of Minerva (c. 1780-1781)
Angelica Kauffman's Self-portrait with Bust of Minerva (c. 1780-1781) - Royal Academy of Arts

So, why does the exhibition feel more like an exercise in duty than a labour of love? The answer is that Kauffman’s art was so of its time that it fails to transcend it. There is the odd spark of eccentricity, such as a self-portrait in which she appears dressed in a traditional Austrian costume. In her oval allegorical oil painting Design (1780), a workmanlike woman, with sleeves seemingly rolled up, ferociously scrutinises an antique statue of a nude male torso, while making a drawing of it.

Otherwise, though, things pander to the fashions of the day. Almost everyone in Kauffman’s history paintings has the appearance of a milksop, with a smooth, rosy-cheeked, childlike face, and imploring, dollish eyes. A subtle version of the same, soft-focus formula, like the 18th-century equivalent of a contemporary photo-effect filter, frequently superimposes visages in Kauffman’s portraits, too.

Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy (1791)
Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy (1791) - Mark Asher Photography 2019

This sense that she is painting a mask is intensified by a couple of compositions in which ancient theatrical masks appear as props; in one, Emma, Lady Hamilton – dressed, like many of the women depicted by Kauffman, in a floaty white robe – strikes a hammy pose, while pretending to be the muse of comedy. The general atmosphere of decorous playacting isn’t offset by anything knockabout or rowdy, or even mischievous. Any hint of sex is sanitised or suppressed.

Was the success of this “female Raphael”, whom a contemporary described as “the most cultivated woman in Europe”, predicated, in part, upon her polite adherence to late-18th-century conventions? I suspect so. Maybe such an approach was necessary to succeed, at that time, as a woman. Yet I found myself underwhelmed, even bored, by so much civility. There’s little here to thrill or startle or elate.

From March 1; information: