Miss Angel: the art and world of Angelica Kauffman by Angelica Goodden

Quick, girls - it's a life-drawing class!

Min Wild
Sunday 11 September 2005 00:00 BST

The artist was the first major internationally recognised woman painter, the Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman. A "Raphael among women", she was especially fêted in England, where she lived for 14 years and was appointed a founder member of the newly-formed Royal Academy. Agile self-publicists, she and Reynolds were good friends, if not - as gossip suggested - lovers, as Angelica Goodden points out in this responsible and scholarly survey of Kauffman's life and times. Reynolds' "Miss Angel" was an extraordinary figure: canny, talented and dogged, she was praised for her masculine energy by Herder and befriended by Goethe. Goodden explains the recipe for her international stature: adding one part ethereal genius to two parts shrewd businesswoman, Kauffman skilfully magicked away any signs of the latter.

Goodden illuminates Kauffman's psychologically penetrating, sometimes superb portraits, and, though very little documentary evidence of her life survives, has used a multitude of sources to produce not only an assessment of her significance but also an overview of the Enlightenment art world and its (mostly) aristocratic patrons. Along with Angelica, the reader is ushered into the presence of all those Enlightenment royals, radicals, eccentrics and grandees who vied for one of her portraits to set off the exuberant plasterwork of their reception rooms. Sometimes their company is delightful - we meet the Livonian Count whose servants spoke only in recitative, who "gave all his orders in musical form", and who made his visitors converse by way of vocal improvisations. The British abroad were not always so cultured: John Damer, whose aristocratic wife was painted by Kauffman, didn't bother on his Grand Tour with the paintings in the Uffizi, but "laid bets with his companion as to who could hop to the end of the gallery first".

It isn't vital, of course, for biographers to like those whose lives they anatomise - sometimes this can be a hindrance. On other occasions, though, a biography can suffer from an odd kind of mental indigestion, as this one does. Discussing Kauffman's (not very distinguished) work in the exalted genre of history painting, Goodden becomes alarmingly severe, like a schoolteacher disappointed in a promising pupil. She perhaps underestimates the extent to which Kauffman's restraint and propriety as a painter and as a person - indeed, a kind of superhuman purity of character - were crucial to her acceptance as a woman presenting her wares in the public world of barter and sale. Kauffman only slipped once: she contracted an ill-advised marriage with a bogus Count in London and, in terror for her reputation, hastily extricated herself.

This was the era of sensibility, where for both women and men the heart was in a complex dialogue with the rational demands of logic and the brain. Much was made of the "effeminacy" of some of Kauffman's faces and figures, and Goodden dwells on the gender implications of this. Women were barred from attending the life classes which would have enabled them to depict muscle and sinew with classical accuracy. This is painfully illustrated by the way that Zoffany's group portrait of the founder members of the Royal Academy sets apart the two female members. They are present only on the wall as muddy portraits, while the recognisably depicted men cluster around a life model.

Of the three categories available to the biographer of an artist - art, life and world - Goodden is not as expansive as she could be on the paintings, and can be tart, sometimes repetitive, and mildly exasperated with Angelica Kauffman, concluding that she may not truly have deserved the fame she won. One can learn a great deal, though, from this wide survey of the greed, prejudice and magnanimity which fashioned the 18th-century European world of art.

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