Born within 15 years of each other, Angelica Kauffman and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun shared many experiences. Both, as attractive young women artists of the late 18th century, were victims of slanderous rumours spread by jealous male counterparts. Both made early, disastrous marriages. Lacking a stable home life, they both travelled as independent women wherever they could find commissions. They were workaholics, conscious of being the sole breadwinner for their relatives. And both were subjected to criticism that their work was too charming and easy on the eye.
Angelica Goodden's Miss Angel is the more substantial bioigraphy and tackles the question of Angelica Kauffman's standing as a serious artist rather than simply a portrait painter and decorator. When Kauffman came to London in 1766 (she was born in Switzerland and had already achieved artistic success in Italy), the combination of her talent and rarity as a woman artist turned her into an instant celebrity. The whole world, it was said, had gone "Angelicamad".
Kauffman capitalised on the enthusiasm. She rose to new heights as a society artist when commissioned to paint Queen Charlotte's portrait. She met Dr Johnson and other members of London's intelligentsia, and mingled with the aristocracy. The leading painter of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds, fondly named her "Miss Angel", which helped fuel rumours about them.
But unlike Vigée Le Brun, she sought a wider clientele. She was one of the first to latch on to the potential of the Industrial Revolution. She joined with manufacturers to reproduce designs on teapots, snuff boxes, fans, commodes and other accompaniments to Georgian life susceptible to decoration. Her image of "Poor Maria" from Sterne's A Sentimental Journey became a sensation. As Goodden points out, not for nothing is Kauffman the German for businessman or shopkeeper.
Angelica Kauffman made life difficult for future biographers by burning her papers, so much of Goodden's material comes from the impression she made on others. She seems to have been universally liked, except by those jealous of her success. Boswell wrote briefly in his diary: "Mlle Kauffman: paintress, singer, modest, amiable. Quite in love...".
A number of people were. But in an aberration of judgment, she entered into a secret marriage with a confidence trickster. A self-styled Swedish count persuaded her to marry him without her father's knowledge, and then began laying claim to her fortune.
Angelica was eventually convinced of his duplicity and a divorce followed, on the grounds of bigamy and non-consummation. Her protective father, Johann Joseph, sole parent since the early death of her mother, discouraged any other suitors. Himself an artist, he encouraged her to devote herself entirely to painting, unhampered by domesticity. Eventually, she married a friend of his, Antonio Zucchi. It was a business arrangement and may have remained unconsummated, although when Zucchi died Angelica wrote to a friend that she was "suffering from the greatest grief".
But throughout her life she retained a virginal image. The mature Angelica was known for her acts of kindness to others, but her deepest commitment was to her work. Given the dearth of original written material, Goodden analyses Kauffman through many of her paintings. This can be irritating if the painting in question is not among the 13 illustrated in the book, and several of the portraits are only quarter-plate size.
The works themselves are scattered through European museums, with the history paintings at Saltram House in Devon. Time for an exhibition to answer the question Goodden poses at the end: Was she really worth the adulation?
From the colour plates in Gita May's Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, we can see that the lady loved painting her self-portrait. Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, criticised Vigée Le Brun for the narcissistically maternal way she portrayed herself with her daughter, Julie. Looking at the 1790 self-portrait of the serenely smiling Vigée Le Brun, there is not a trace of the emotional turmoil she had been through - fleeing for her life from France, her patroness Marie-Antoinette arrested, her friends scattered or imprisoned. In a way, it may show strength of character to retain this bright-eyed optimism in the face of ruination.
Vigée Le Brun's portraits of Ancien Régime beauties are evocative of Fragonard, but the later portraits during and after her 12-year exile have hints of neo-classicism in the flowing costumes, and a pre-Romantic mood in the storm clouds or sunsets. She found patrons in the courts of Europe, and became a confidante to Catherine the Great.
Her charm hid a fierce dedication to her art. Pregnant with her first and only child, she refused to leave the easel until labour pains overcame her, and a midwife was hastily sent for.
The publishers have been generous with illustrations here - 16 full-size colour plates and 18 black-and-white in the text - but the writing is not up to the standards set by today's biographers. Adjectives come in pairs - "exciting and vital"; anecdotes get repeated; and explanations for the American market grate.
Unfortunately, Goodden's more comprehensive biography of Vigée Le Brun, The Sweetness of Life, is out of print, with only a few copies for sale at a rarity price through Amazon. Perhaps Goodden's present publishers should consider a paperback edition alongside Miss Angel.
Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by ArrowReuse content