WHEN THE CHURCH BELLS STARTED CHIMING IN ROME ON 7 NOVEMBER 1807, A FUNERAL WAKE, WORTHY OF A STATESMAN, SWOLLEN WITH PROMINENT FIGURES, MADE ITS WAY TOWARDS SAN ANDREA DELLA FRATTE. IN THE COFFIN CARRIED AND ACCOMPANIED BY THE DIRECTORS OF VARIOUS ART ACADEMIES, INCLUDING SCULPTOR ANTONIO CANOVA AND OTHER WELLKNOWN ARTISTS AND DIGNITARIES FROM COUNTLESS COUNTRIES, WAS THE MORTAL COIL OF THE FAMOUS ARTIST ANGELIKA KAUFFMANN1, ‘LOVED AND RESPECTED BY ALL’.
The ‘artist of the people’, the ‘maybe most cultured woman in Europe’ as described by Herder, was paid her last respects in a ‘solemn funeral, the likes of which had last been seen at Raphael’s wake.’ Two of her last pictures, Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well4 and David and Nathan, flanked her coffin, moving the swath of mourning onlookers to tears. They bid farewell to a painter who had become rich and successful, a rare feat even among today’s artists. She’d uncompromisingly dedicated her whole life to art and built a circle of influential patrons and admirers on the back of her smart networking, her excellent hosting and a nose for business. She worked at her London atelier between 1766 and 1781, then moving to Rome where it become the meeting point for her international clientele. The spiritual elite of the Enlightenment, represented by Winckelmann, Goethe, and Herder, but also Emperors and Queens, royalty and private citizens from all over Europe and overseas were her friends and clients, including Austrian Emperor Joseph II., Russian Czar Katharina II. or the English Queen Charlotte v. Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
Kauffmann was a wunderkind already at the tender age of eleven.
As an only child, she benefited from her father’s knowledge, painter Johann Joseph Kaufmann from Schwarzenberg in Vorarlberg, an advantageous starting point for an artist, whose contemporary colleagues barely experienced the same amount of education she did. At first, her portraits brought her success, then moving to historical, mythological, and allegorical scenes, making her a feted master of the classical genre. She left behind an oeuvre of around 800 oil paintings, 400 drawings, 41 engravings as well as a cycle of frescoes she’d already completed at the age of 15 for the Church in Schwarzenberg. Her works spurred a raft of over 600 engravings as well as countless copycat works, emulations, and forgeries, an indication of her unwavering popularity that still continues to this very day.
The artist was born in Chur in Graubünden on 30 October 1741, and was brought up in Italianspeaking Veltlin; she trained in Italy and Vorarlberg between 1752 and 1766, and spoke four languages from a very young age as well as performing on the court stages in Italy as a singer. She became a member of the Bologna, Florence, Rome, and Venice Academies as early as 1762. Her paintings about old English history such as Vortigern and Rowena or Edward and Eleanora, became the cornerstone of British History of Art and, therefore, she was appointed as founding member of the Royal Academy in London. Together with Mary Moser, a painter specialising in still life, they were the sole two women members for 200 years. In 1764, Kauffmann laid the foundations for her ambitious goal in Rome with Bacchus and Ariadne3: she wanted to make a career out of stories and myths. Portraits were the quick breadwinner, yet her success was the result of her innovative portrait of J. J. Winckelmann5 (Zurich, Kunsthaus).
Under the patronage of the English Queen, she created large portraits of the monarch in London. Soon it became common courtesy to be immortalised by the young talent. Kaufmann contributed to the renaissance of antiquity in art by depicting scenes from the works of Virgil and Homer (e.g. Farewell of Hector, Saltram Collection, Nat. Trust; Penelope awakened by Euryclea7. With her small representations of women loved and scorned, the artist became the precursor of ‘sensitivity’ in art, and her work the embodiment of the sentimental and humanistic ideal of the beautiful soul. Her name was on everybody’s lips, as proved by the countless copperplate engravings of her works in the new stipple technique which had spread all over Europe. Furniture, textiles, china, and every other kind of knick-knacks were created based on her oeuvre. Moreover, Kaufmann expertly adapted the Van-Dyck- and Oriental trend for her portraits, thus becoming the first port of call of the portrait market of the fashionconscious English society.
The highlight of her career in England was reached in 1780 with four ceiling paintings: Invention, Composition, Design and Colouring commissioned by the Royal Academy. Besides delivering an interesting concept, once again she reveals her sense for delicate colours and textiles created with a light brush technique, the ‘penello volante’. Before Kaufmann opened her atelier in Rome in the Palazzo on the Spanish steps, once owned by Anton Raphael Mengs, she answered the call of Queen Maria Karoline and went to Naples to paint the Portrait of the Royal Family of Naples in a colossal format (1784, Naples, Capodimonte Museum) as well as a raft of historical paintings including Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi6. Kauffmann therefore represented brave woman as heroes at the centre of her stories even before the French Revolution, and characterised the new idea of feminine traits from the Enlightenment.
In Kauffmann’s salon, praised as the ‘temple of female glory‘, prominent figures and talented poetesses met, including Teresa Bandettini-Landucci2. Many of the people were immortalised by Kaufmann in lively portraits for posterity. Kauffmann was praised as the female Raphael of art, and yet it’s still surprising that she was the only woman whose bust was placed in the Roman Pantheon, right next to Raphael’s, of course. The reception of her life and work is overshadowed by her gender and female clichés to this very day. Her work was only recently taken seriously as a result of a well-thought artistic process, while in the past it was considered a ‘female hobby’ led by emotions. Already during Kaufmann’s time, her life was the stuff of gossip, even featuring in theatrical pieces and novels. To this very day, many biographers research her love life, detracting from her services rendered as one of the most important artists of the past in Europe. An important element which will provide an expert and rational assessment of her performance will be the catalogue raisonné being compiled as we speak by the author of this article.