In June 1780, Angelica Kauffman (1747–1807) was paid one hundred guineas for a prestigious commission: the creation of four ceiling paintings at Somerset House in London. Representing ‘The Elements of Art’ – Invention, Composition, Design and Colouring – critics lavished praise on ‘the celebrated Angelica Kauffman’, whose ‘very capital pictures which adorn the ceiling’ had ‘an infinite deal of character, and sweetness’ (cited on p.18). The four paintings commemorated Somerset House’s new function as home of the Royal Academy of Arts, where Kauffman was one of the thirty-six founding Members, one of only two women Members. It is these roundels– the only known examples of murals painted by a woman artist in the eighteenth century –which would have been at the heart of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, which was scheduled to open on 27 June 2020.
Members of the WSG will have greatly lamented the cancellation of the London iteration of Angelica Kauffman, which was one of the first exhibitions to be removed from the RA programme due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the sheer number of international loans that made up the show (from at least 34 institutions, plus private collections), it may have proved too difficult to coordinate a delayed installation in London. Instead, the catalogue’s good quality, 144 colour illustrations now serve to remind us of what fresh research and exciting loans we have missed. It is not clear if the show will be rehung at a later date (as we have seen with the National Gallery’s rescheduled Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition) but the German instalment, at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, has been extended to 29 September 2020.
The exhibition catalogue is edited by Dr Bettina Baumgärtel, the exhibition curator and Director of the Angelica Kauffman Research Project (AKRP). Generously illustrated and handsomely designed, it opens with four relatively short, thematic essays. The first and the longest is a chronological account of Kauffman’s extraordinary life, written by Baumgärtel, and contains research that will be familiar to many Kauffman scholars. Baumgärtel covers Kauffman’s early years, her training in Italy, her arrival in London in 1766, her cultivation of female clients and finally, her return to Rome. Next, Helen Valentine writes on the RA’s four ceiling roundels, which, she confesses, languished in the basement of Burlington House for thirty years in the mid-nineteenth century – representative, no doubt, of Kauffman’s secondary reputation at that time. In the third essay, Johannes Myssok is concerned with the friendship between Kauffman and the sculptor Antonio Canova, whom Kauffman counted as her ‘amico pregiatissimo’ (highly prized friend) and who went on to coordinate her funeral in 1807. Opening amongst the cosmopolitan milieu of late eighteenth-century Rome, Myssok’s new research is based on unpublished documents and provides a fascinating glimpse into the companionship enjoyed by these two artists. The final essay, written by Inken Maria Houlbec, makes a technical examination of two paintings in the collection of the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf: Agrippina Mourning over the Ashes of Germanicus (1793) and Portrait of the Impromptu Virtuoso Teresa Bandettini Landucci (1794). These mature and sophisticated compositions were created in Rome, and Houlbec’s astute scientific analysis is illustrated with helpful cross-sections and coloured details.
The majority of the book is given over to the catalogue, which is organised into nine sections, detailing eighty-one familiar and surprising works. Reciting the organisation of the catalogue gives an indication of the exhibition’s contents: ‘I. Stagings of the Self’; ‘II. Training in Italy’; ‘III. The History Painter: The Homer and Shakespeare Revival’; ‘IV. Founding Member of the Royal Academy of Arts’; ‘V. The Portrait Painter as the Arbiter of Fashion’; ‘VI. New Heroines’; ‘VII. Beautiful Young Men as beau idéal’; ‘VIII ‘Parnassus of the Muses: Masquerades and Role Play’ and finally ‘IX. Rome, Residence of the Fine Arts, and International Commissions.’ Collectively, the one-page introduction to each section, as well as the individual catalogue entries, offer much to learn for those unfamiliar, and familiar, with Kauffman’s ouevre. Furthermore, the extensive six-page bibliography will be of great use to students of both Kauffman and eighteenth-century women artists more broadly.
A closer examination of Kauffman’s printed oeuvre, her designs for the print trade, and more of her engagement with the decorative arts, would have been a welcome element to the catalogue. It seems that these media were included in the exhibition, as indicated by the Kunstpalast’s website, but there is little discussion of their importance for Kauffman’s reputation, and income, in the catalogue. For more on these, we eagerly await Dr Baumgärtel’s forthcoming, and no doubt highly illuminating, catalogue raisonné.
Once they return from Düsseldorf, Kauffman’s four roundels will be installed back in the entrance hall ceiling in Burlington House. Thankfully these paintings, as well as the preliminary oil studies in grisaille which are housed at the V&A, will be available for us to view once again. Yet, as former Tate Curator, Martin Myrone, lamented in a recent article: ‘There are important pictures elsewhere in the UK, but, given that she was one of the most celebrated artists of the day, Kauffman remains woefully underrepresented’ (Tate Etc. Issue 43: Summer 2018). The exhibition catalogue testifies to the great level of collaborative research that went into coordinating this exhibition, which would have been an important opportunity to revisit Kauffman’s work and recover her status as one of Britain’s foremost eighteenth-century artists. Sadly, it looks like London will have to wait a little longer before she is given the attention that she deserves.
Birkbeck, University of London
Hannah Lyons is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London and the V&A. Her dissertation explores the role, status and output of women printmakers in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain. Previously she was Assistant Curator at Tate Britain and Curatorial Assistant at Christ Church Picture Gallery, University of Oxford.
Angelica Kauffman is currently on sale in the RA shop for £20 plus postage.