Oil on canvas, 737 x 610mm (29 x 24")
National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 430)
Angelica Kauffmann was born in
Switzerland. She was equally talented as a musician and as an
artist. Her mother died when she was sixteen and her father (also
an artist) taught her and travelled with her to Italy, where
she was permitted to copy paintings in a private room in the
Uffizi. In her book The Obstacle Race: The fortunes of women
painters and their work (1979) Germaine Greer called her a 'marvellous
hybrid: free from the overwhelming influence of any single master'.
In 1762 Kauffmann was accepted as a member of the Accademia del
Disegno, Florence, and in 1763 she went to Rome, where she became
friends with the German historian and art critic Johann Winckelmann
(1717-68), making her name with her portrait of him in 1764.
She came to London in 1766 and two years later became a founder
member of the Royal Academy of Arts (the only other female member
was Mary Moser). Kauffmann painted Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1767
and was described by the contemporary writer James Boswell as
'musician, paintress, modest, amiable'. Her work was popular
and her decorative history pieces were widely engraved and used
in the manufacture of objets d'art. She painted many self-portraits
(see p.10), the first at the age of just thirteen, and used herself
as the protagonist in her allegorical works, for example as 'Design',
as 'Imitation', and in the painting Self-portrait in the Character
of Painting Embraced by Poetry (1782; Kenwood, The Iveagh Bequest).
In 1781 she married the artist Antonio Zucchi (1726-95; her
first marriage was a failure - to a bigamist count). Zucchi,
a less distinguished painter, was an ideal husband - he could
assume the role of male chaperone and mediator - and she
returned to Italy with him and her father, who died in 1782.
In 1785 she painted a history painting for Catherine the Great,
Empress of Russia, and in 1787 she came back to Rome when she
was invited to contribute her self-portrait to the prestigious
Medici collection of self-portraits in the Uffizi. In that same
year she became friends with the great German poet Goethe (1749-1832).
In this self-portrait Kauffmann points to herself whilst looking
at us and balancing her drawing book under her right hand, which
is poised ready to draw with her pastel. The latter is held firmly
in a 'porte-crayon', which allowed more flexibility of movement,
and therefore more fluid and gestural marks, by adding length
to the pastel stick. (At this time pastels would have been quite
stumpy and fragile as they were handmade from pure pigment and
gum Arabic.) The painting is bathed in a warm soft light. Kauffmann's
skin appears translucent and her clothing echoes the folds and
curls of her tumbling hair. Distinctly feminine and seductive,
the work reinforces her determination as a woman artist rather
than merely showing off her skills. Kauffmann presents herself
and the tools of her trade as an aesthetic statement.