Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Women’s Work

One of the greatest women painters of the eighteenth century, Angelica Kauffmann was born on this date in 1741. A child prodigy in painting, Kauffmann took the lessons of her artist father and was already working as a portraitist by the age of twelve. Kauffmann took the European world by storm with her combination of artistic talents, intellectual abilities (she was widely read and spoke German, French, Italian, and English), musical gifts (especially in singing), and stunning good looks. Her Self-Portrait from the 1760s (above) shows the twentysomething total package in all her glory. Even the musty art historian Johann Winckelmann, the father of art history, praised Kauffmann’s personal charms and artistic gifts.

Today, Kauffmann’s pictures don’t enjoy the same reputation they did during her lifetime. Certainly, her personal charisma helped further her career. Works such as Miranda and Ferdinand, from The Tempest (above, from 1782), reflect the contemporary interest in the works of Shakespeare. Kauffmann knew her audience and the world of art sales, so, like many others, she targeted the Bard-philes. It’s easy to degrade her choice of subjects today if you don’t take into account the contemporary constrictions on her choices. Female artists couldn’t paint from the male model in any state of undress, hindering her development in painting figures outside of the normal conventions of portraiture. Many attack Kauffmann for painting herself over and over, but like many artists (including Rembrandt), necessity forced her to paint herself when nobody else was available or socially acceptable. Also, there was a growing market for portraits of Kauffmann by her own hand, keepsakes for those smitten by her charms. A souvenir of a close encounter between Kauffmann and a member of the Powel family in London now graces the walls of The Powel House in Olde City Philadelphia.

Sadly, Kauffmann never found true love, finding herself trapped in a marriage under false pretenses that her friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds, helped extricate her from. Reynolds and Kauffmann painted each others portraits and were great friends, leading to speculation that they were more than just friends. In 1769, Reynolds helped Kauffmann become one of the two first women in the Royal Academy (along with Mary Moser). Due to the standards of the time, however, the women couldn’t attend any of the meetings. An engraving of the time showing one of those first meetings includes on the wall portraits of Kauffmann (similar to the Self-Portrait from the 1780s above) and Moser looking down on the men gathered together. Reynolds’ prominent position in British art at the time drew the ire of many on the margins of the art world, including William Blake. Nathaniel Hone, however, protested in paint in his The Conjurer, which shows Reynolds as the power-mad magus of British art. Kauffmann saw the painting and identified herself as one of the nudes frolicking in the upper left corner of the painting. Hone toned his attack down, painting over the nude of Kauffmann, but his misogynist resentment (and that of many others) lingered on. Fortunately, Kauffmann found many friends and admirers in the art world—forward thinkers longing to see the exclusion of women artists end. Charles Willson Peale, who named sons after Titian, Raphael, and Rembrandt, paid Kauffmann perhaps the highest compliment by naming his daughter Angelica Kauffmann Peale.

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