ART / A novel approach: Andrew Graham-Dixon on the cussedly original paintings of Angelica Kauffman at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

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Angelica Kauffman came to England from Switzerland in 1764 and spent 15 years here flaunting her own outrageousness: a founder member of the Royal Academy and one of the most celebrated narrative painters of her time, she was a woman in a man's man's man's man's world. Women painters were not that unusual in the late 18th century, but most confined themselves to the supposedly feminine and supposedly minor genres of portraiture and still-life, where it was allowed that female intuitiveness and a taste for the pretty might come in handy. But Kauffman set her sights higher. She aimed to paint History; grand narrative subjects handled with solemn intent. Angelica Kauffman: A Continental Artist in Georgian England, at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, reveals a woman who was extremely conscious of her own singularity.

Kauffman turned the perceived incongruity of her vocation to advantage by making it one of the prime subjects of her art. She did so most strikingly in her Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting, a work which now seems subtly proto-feminist in intention. Kauffman pictures herself as a young woman equally gifted at music (she was said to have been a musical prodigy) and painting who would choose the more worthy path of a career in art. The figure of Music is a languorous and slightly soppy muse in a decollete dress, pleadingly clasping the young Kauffman by the hand. To the other side of the artist, the personification of Painting, while still female, is distinctly masculine: she wears blue, the colour of seriousness, and points Kauffman towards the Temple of Glory on a distant hilltop.

The painting is Kauffman's most strident declaration of her determination to pursue what she knows is thought to be an unsuitable career for a woman. Her allegory is, itself, a cunning variation on the theme of The Choice of Hercules, who has to decide between Vice and Virtue. Kauffman as Hercules is clearly determined not to be restricted by her gender. Rejecting the Vice-like figure of Music (thought, in the 18th century, to be an appropriate diversion for women) and choosing the Virtue-like figure of Painting, Kauffman creates her own mythology by adapting the mythology of the past: hers is a mythology of role reversal, of a woman's freedom to trespass on the cultural territory of men; a way of saying she wants to be one of the boys, along with Raphael and Michelangelo, Poussin and Titian. There is nothing particularly innovative about the style of her picture, which is painted in a manner that might be described as international Neo-classical. But it is, nevertheless, one of the more radical and remarkable self-portraits of the late 18th century.

Kauffman was not a great artist, although this may be as much down to her historical circumstances as to the nature of her talents. She was a history painter in Britain working at a time when history painting everywhere except France was a genre in near-terminal decline. Her attempts to find and paint grand themes congenial to English tastes led her, on more than one occasion, to desperately recherche subjects, as suggested by the crazy longueurs of some of her titles: The Tender Eleonora Sucking the Venom out of the Wound which Edward I, her Royal Consort, Received with a Poisoned Dagger from an Assassin in Palestine, or Lady Elizabeth Grey Imploring of Edward IV the Restitution of her Deceased Husband's Lands, Forfeited in the Dispute between the Houses of York and Lancaster. The problem with pictures like this, which are all about response, rather than action - tearful bystanders, standing in for the tearful audience the artist has in her mind's eye, react with grief or astonishment to the central event - is that they want to be novels. Their subject is feeling, the complexities of sentiment, inner worlds of thought and emotion that refuse to be painted.

Kauffman is more interesting as a reinventor of mythological stories, which she sees, almost invariably, from the woman's point of view. Reading Homer or Virgil, she places women, so often peripheral presences in narrative art, at the centre of her compositions. Not that she can be said to have overturned existing preconceptions about the nature of female virtue: in Kauffman's narrative pictures, heroic women are presented as forces for reconciliation, for the promotion of family values over martial bravado; they achieve their ends, not through action but through speech, through the imploring gaze. Coriolanus Entreated by His Mother, Vettunia, and His Wife, Volumnia may be the most typically Kauffmanesque painting Kauffman ever painted: it is the perfect image of the gung-ho warrior stopped in his tracks by an army of women.

Kauffman's Neo-classicism, like the Neo- classicism of most history painters working in Britain in the later 18th century, is both stagey and stilled: her Coriolanus is a frozen mise-en- scene, a piece of theatre rendered awkwardly static. But Kauffman makes stasis work to moral effect in her art; it becomes part of what might be described as a pacifist ethical system. To act, in Kauffman's world, remains the prerogative of men, but action itself is subtly traduced in her painting: it is seen as a force for evil, which women are forever trying to block, prevent, argue against. Kauffman's heroines are, almost invariably, preventers of action: women who stand steadfastly in men's way and force them to think about the possible consequences of their impetuosity. When they are not attempting to prevent the actions of men, Kauffman's women are seen suffering its results or stoically awaiting its conclusion.

Kauffman's moralised distrust of action does, it has to be said, make her art exquisitely dull. She is a painter of pictures where, if the women get their way, nothing happens and reconciliation is achieved; and she is a painter of pictures where things have happened or will happen to women who are powerless, lamenting victims. Inactivity might be morally commendable but in terms of story it is less than gripping. Still there is something cussedly original about Kauffman: a narrative artist who leaves the narrative out of her art.

Kauffman's allegories may also be charged with a form of autobiographical significance. Her relationships with men do not seem (although it is hard to know how much of this is down to malicious rumour) to have been especially happy: she is said to have had affairs with, among others, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Henry Fuseli and the French revolutionary Jean Paul Marat; and shortly after her arrival in England she married, disastrously, a man calling himself Count Frederic de Horn who turned out to have at least one previous, undivorced wife and fled the country four months after marrying Kauffman. She may have had good reason to suspect the impetuosity of men.

Kauffman's most remarkable achievement may have been simply to find employment and patrons, as a history painter working in 18th- century Britain. She was one of the few artists practising in this country who were brave (or foolhardy) enough to follow Reynolds' advice and paint large, ambitious subject paintings: instances, as he put it in his Discourses on Art, 'of heroic action, or heroic suffering'. The structures of patronage that sustained narrative artists on the continent simply did not exist in England: there was no significant tradition of commissioning religious paintings in this country; English aristocratic patrons required, for the most part, paintings of themselves, their wives, houses, horses and dogs. Yet still Kauffman carved out a market for herself.

No wonder, perhaps, that she was admired so resentfully by British writers on art at the time. In 1777, a reviewer for the London Chronicle remarked that 'It is surely somewhat singular that while so many of our male artists are employed upon portraits, landscapes, and other inferior species of painting, this lady should be almost uniformly carried . . . to venture upon historical pieces; which is as great a phenomenon as it would be if our poets dealt in nothing but sonnets and epigrams, while our poetesses aspired to the highest and most difficult department of their art. But though Miss Kauffman possesses this masculine and daring spirit, she still retains much of the softness natural to her sex . . .' Kauffman may not have been quite as soft as the writer liked to think. She did remarkably well for herself in the 15 years that she spent in England, earning pounds 14,000, roughly the equivalent of pounds 750,000 in today's money. She knew how to market herself, and there may have been a certain element of self-satisfaction in that Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting: Angelica Kauffman knew that she had made the right choice.

(Photograph omitted)