Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) spent only 15 years in England, but made a significant impact on the 18th-century London art scene, becoming one of only two female Founder Members of the Royal Academy.
Born in Chur, Switzerland in 1741, Kauffman was quickly recognised as a child prodigy. Her father, a painter himself, gave her drawing lessons from a young age as the family moved between Austria, Switzerland and Italy. In Italy she established a reputation as an artist and was elected a member of the Roman Accademia di San Luca at the age of 23. After moving to London in 1766, Kauffman struck up a close friendship with Joshua Reynolds, commemorated in the portraits they painted of each other. When the Royal Academy of Arts was established in 1768 with Joshua Reynolds as President, she and Mary Moser were the only two women invited to become Founder Members.
Kauffman painted portraits and landscapes, but identified herself primarily as a history painter, the genre Reynolds placed at the heart of the Academy’s teaching. During this period, women were still prohibited from drawing nude models and could only draw the male figure from existing casts, as Kauffman depicts in Design.
Kauffman did have influence, though. In 1775, she successfully prevented a painting she found offensive from being displayed in the Summer Exhibition. Nathaniel Hone’s The Conjurer casts Joshua Reynolds in the title role, while Kauffman is possibly depicted as a child leaning against his knee. Reynolds was 18 years older than Kauffman, and the painting was scandalously interpreted as a thinly veiled critique of a rumored affair between the two. This may have been too embarrassing for Kauffman to acknowledge so she expressed outrage over a naked female figure in the background dancing in black stockings, which was subsequently painted over in the final painting. In her letter to the President and Council, Kauffman threatened to remove her work from the show, stating:
“I have but one request to make, to send home my Pictures if that is to be exhibited”
The Committee’s ready compliance with her demands reflects her important status within the Academy. In 1778, Kauffman was commissioned by the Royal Academy to paint a set of four ‘Elements of Art’, to be displayed in a new Council Chamber. A visual representation of the theories that Reynolds set out in his Discourses on Art, the four huge ceiling paintings present four female figures as Invention, Composition, Design and Colour. In her later years, Kauffman retired to Rome, where she died in 1807. Soon after, a bust of Kauffman sculpted by her cousin Johann Peter Kauffmann was placed in the Pantheon in Rome, beside Raphael’s.