Saturday 11 May 2024


The Royal Academy of Arts is currently celebrating the work of Angelica Kauffman RA (1741-1807), a Swiss Neoclassical painter who had a highly successful career in London and Rome. Remembered primarily as a history painter, Kauffman was also skilled portraitist, landscape painter. She was, along with Mary Moser, one of only two female painters who were among the 34 founding members of the Royal Academy of Art at its inception in 1768. 


In this 'Self-portrait in al'antica Dress' Angelica Kauffman chooses to show herself not just as an 'artist' (she holds a tablet and stylus and has her painters impedimenta within reach) but also as an idealised image of femininity. The rustic costume and the classical setting – columns, swagged curtaining and an idyllic country vista in the background – complete the romantic mood and, in doing so, effectively, effortlessly – and, perhaps, ironically – conceal the labour of the painter's craft.

There is a major focus Kauffman's portraiture in this exhibition and, in addition to the self-portrait above, I'm sharing just three works which show her very considerable talent.


DAVID GARRICK (1717-1779); English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer who influenced nearly all aspects of European theatrical practice throughout the 18th century. Painted in 1764, Kauffman boldly portrays Garrick with unexpected – indeed, uncommon – informality. Garrick turns on his chair to look back at the observer, eschewing the frequently-adopted 'dramatic' pose used in the depiction of thespians! This air of being 'at ease with life', combined with the intensity of his look and the hint of a wry smile, makes for a compelling portrait.



Sir JOSHUA REYNOLDS, PRA, FRS, FRSA, (1723-1792); English painter who, himself, specialised in portraits. He promoted the 'Grand Style' in painting, which depended on idealisation of the imperfect. He was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts and was knighted by George III in 1769. This portrait of a portraitist (dating from 1767) combines the sense of a man of considerable public importance – the associated trappings provided by the studio setting with its easel, books, papers and an antique bust of Michelangelo, whom Reynolds so much admired – with a contemplative pose that reflects, perhaps, his friendship with Kauffman and, even, his acknowledgement of her worth as a fellow artist.


JOHANN JOACHIM WINCKELMANN (1717-1768); German art historian, one of the founders of scientific archaeology and considered by many as the father of the discipline of 'art history'. He was one of the first scholars to arrange Greek Art into specific periods, and time classifications. Kauffman depicts Winckelmann, pen in hand but looking away from what he is writing (and the observer), as if he were caught in a moment of reverie. The simple, uncluttered staging and the sitter's reflective expression suggests a man with an ordered mind who primarily seeks to bring order to the chaos of history.

The exhibition, 'Angelica Kauffman', remains on display at The Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London, until 30 June 2024.

[Photos: David Weeks]

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