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March 1999

Angelika Kauffmann: Painter, cult icon, and business woman of the nineties--the 1790's that is

An introduction to the life and works of Angelika Kauffmann.

This is the first major retrospective of the work of Angelika Kauffmann, known as the “Raphael of women painters.” The show features more than 250 of her paintings, drawings, prints and decorative art objects. Kauffmann was no Raphael, but she was a gifted painter, and it is hard to believe that the somewhat sexist compliment would have been anything but pleasing to this 18th-century lady. Swiss-born Kauffmann made a fortune as a portraitist, and the “Grand Tour portraits” in this show are not to be missed. Unlike so many 18th-century portraitists who turned their sitters into stylized types, Kauffmann’s portraits reveal the individual character of her sitters. One of the most engaging portraits in the show (there are many) is the very large group portrait Familienbildnis der Gräfin Katharina Petrovna Bariatinskaja (1791), with its lush colors and loose brush work. Visitors loyal to Bavaria should not miss the portrait of Ludwig I of Bavaria (1807). This work was one of Kauffmann’s last portraits. It is a Neoclassical work, with its Greek krater vase and Roman ruins in the background, details loved by her royal patrons. Artists’ self-portraits are always captivating – think of the famous self-portraits of Dürer, Rembrandt and Rubens. In Kauffmann’s Selbstbildnis am Scheideweg zwischen Musik und Malerei (Self-Portrait at the Crossroads of Painting and Music, 1792) the artist depicts her decision, as a young girl, to pursue painting rather than music. The road behind Painting, towards which the artist has already taken her first step, is depicted as a rough, uphill climb toward a distant peak, while Music sits safely ensconsed in a secure-looking chamber. One of Kauffmann’s most intriguing self-portraits in the exhibition contains all the elements of her best, late works: the frozen action of the three women is Neoclassical in style, but is far more dynamic and loosely painted than her history paintings of the 1780s. Kauffmann also executed history paintings – then thought to be reserved for “serious” artists, and certainly not for women, who were expected to confine themselves to portraits, still-lifes, and landscape painting. One of the reasons history painting was off limits to women was that it required the artist to do nude studies. As a result of this prejudice, Kauffmann had to study other artist’s anatomical drawings and sketch sculptures. (Later in her career she reputedly did draw from nude male models – under her father’s supervision.) Her desire to pursue this style of painting, with its figure-filled compositions and mythological subject matter, came about through her early artistic studies in Italy. This occurred at a time when the study of Greco-Roman art experienced a revival with the re-discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Two of the most common themes in Kaufmann’s painting might be related to her own life. The first is her penchant for painting women abandoned by men, such as Ariadne of Naxos and Odysseus’s long-suffering wife Penelope. Kauffmann was herself seduced by a poser named Brandt, who was masquerading in London society as a Swedish count and tricked Kauffmann into marrying him. After his true identity was discovered and the marriage annulled, he continued to make claims on her purse. It was a notorious scandal in London society. Shortly after the annullment she married the Italian painter Antonio Zucchi, and returned to the Continent. The second parallel is that Kauffmann painted many sensitive and artistic men, and in real life she was famous for her friendships with the leading artistic men of her day. Among her friends she numbered Herder (who called her “possibly the most educated woman in Europe”), Goethe, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West. As a founding member of the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1768, Kauffmann was committed to the ideas behind history painting which aimed to bring art and literature together through its depictions of heroic subject matter. Unfortunately, few of her patrons had any interest in these lofty ideas, though they were quite happy to be depicted as gods and goddesses. Kauffmann’s Bildnis Domenica Morghen als Tragödie mit Maddalena Volpato als Komödie (Portrait of Domenica Morghen as Tragedy and Maddalena Volpato as Comedy, 1791), with its subjects depicted as muses in Greco-Roman attire, reveals how the artist synthesized portraiture with history painting, satisfying her clients and her own artistic ideas. Also on display are numerous works in porcelain, glass and wood. These fascinating objects were produced by craftsmen at the height of the “angelicamad” mania in the 1790s. Designs from her paintings were turned into prints, wallpaper (designed to resemble Roman fresco painting), vases, fans, tables tops, snuff boxes, jewelry, and even a pipe. Two of the finest examples of the porcelain works include a Wedgwood vase, Tanzende Nymphen (c. 1790), with beautiful relief work that imitates ancient Roman cameo and glass work, and an elaborate plate which depicts the Abandonment of Ariadne on the Island of Naxos (1821). In many ways, what Angelika Kauffmann achieved as a woman is even more impressive than her artwork. Of course, she cannot be separated from her prodigious output, yet to be one of only a few women artists working in the late 18th century must have required determination and guts. Her passion and drive paid off, and, unlike other women artists of her time, her accomplishments were publicly acknowledged and praised. A successful business woman of the nineties, this exhibit is a testament to her impressive life’s work.

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