Angelica Kauffman: Among the Few Female Masters of History Art

Angelica Kauffman was an 18th century Swiss artist with mastery of creating History art, making her one of the few female painters in the genre.

The Sorrow of Telemachus by Angelica Kauffman

Sometimes when I stumble upon different arguments for the incorrect usage of the word feminism in a thesis or leading books about feminism foretelling the perspective of history, it upsets me for my unorthodox way of thinking. For instance, the woman’s revolution for Labour and wages was about equality and rights, which is usually blended with theories of feminism, but it was never that. There might be a few people who were against women’s rights, but at the same, there belonged neutral people. And so generalising with the gender for an unfortunate event is absolutely ridiculous. Revisiting history through gender is an absurd idea. Take another instance; as you read about the Italian history of patronage of art and poetry for females, they enjoyed privileges irrespective of their gender. Sparrow’s Woman Painters of The World represents a theory that Italians put more effort into learning for women because they cared more about their profession and that they lived longer than men. Furthermore, Italian painters took pride in depicting women of intelligence in their paintings. As the text continues from Renaissance, it reaches till Baroque period to tell about Artemisia Gentileschi, a prominent female painter whose talent enabled her to continue to be a proficient painter despite her tragic life events in which her father continued to support her in famous biographies on the artist by Mary d. Garrard says the opposite, and it feels like her thoughts of herself take a dominating force on the reader instead of giving a true vision of history. While I do not disregard the historian’s true purpose in informing us of the relevant events of Artemisia’s life, I feel concerned when history is presented with a biased viewpoint. Hence, I have decided to put all my efforts into covering the lives of painters through the resources of the older centuries to give you a broader and unbiased view of history. As a part of this very effort, we are here to learn about the story of a famous female Neoclassicist painter, Angelica Kauffman, who was quite acceptable for her art, like Sirani and Artemisia Gentileschi, depicting history paintings on frescoes. In addition, her popularity was as high as men’s, and she was one of the crucial painters of the time. So let us start reading and inspiring ourselves with her life.

Artist Abstract: Angelica Kauffman.

Angelica Kauffman was one of the most successful women artists in the history of art, as she had established herself as a leading figure in the art world of the late-eighteenth century. Her friend and poet George Keate published his Epistle to Angelica Kauffman, in which he states the inspiration of Kauffman and the mark of her achievement. From portraits to history paintings to etchings and engravings, she had a diversity of subjects and themes in her art, ranging from Classical and medieval history to the Renaissance and contemporary literature of England, France, German and Italy. William Shaw Sparrow says,

“Her art is quite artificial in spirit, with a strong bias towards the sentimental; but it has for all that considerable charm and ability, qualities let us remember, that won the admiration of Reynolds and Goethe.”

NameAngelica Kauffman
GenreHistorical Painting

An Account of the Artist’s Life.

Early Life.

Born in Coire, the capital of Grisons, Switzerland, in 1741, Angelica Kauffman studied at a British school in her early days. As a prodigy, Kauffman’s father, a provincial painter in Bregenz, trained her as a painter and her mother as a musician. Even while she was under the guidance of her father, she had many portrait commissions. As Kauffman progressed in her career while in her teens, she decided to choose between music and art. De Rossi, who was the biographer of Angelica Kauffman, mentioned that to eradicate the dilemma of choosing the right career path, she consulted a local priest with her father. He advised her that music may be a chance of easier and early success but will be more lucrative, but at the same time, a life of a painter would not bring initial success but is an arduous and intellectual profession to carry out. Hence, after the incident followed, Kauffman decided to be a painter.

Angelica Kauffman Self Portrait
Self-Portrait, Angelica Kauffman | Source: National Portrait Gallery, London

In her later years of life, during the 1790s, Angelica memorialized this incident between the two choices in career through a self-portrait, where she showed herself between two female figures representing the arts of painting and music. Such personifications were the standard means of allegory since the Renaissance, so these images, which link themselves to the time of antiquity through poses, gestures, and dresses, were often termed Iconologia. Furthermore, Rossi suggested that her composition was also based on a well-known story, The Choice, or Judgement of Hercules, in which Hercules confronts the moral choice between pleasure represented by a beautiful and sensuous-reclining woman and Virtue, personified by a powerful and armed woman pointing the way of Glory. In her version of the story, she substituted Hercules for sensual pleasure for music while depicting herself with a heroic posture on the dignity of the arts. You must further note that, unlike other woman artists like Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba and Robusti, she does not portray herself playing music as she considered art as a proper aristocratic feminine accomplishment, expressing a decorum. Hence, Kauffman’s purposeful rejection of music makes her different from other woman artists. 

Angelica Kauffman Self Portrait hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting
Self Portrait hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting, Angelica Kauffman | Source: National Trust Collections of The United Kingdom

Kauffman’s Movement in Italy.

As she made a choice, Angelica Kauffman travelled and lived with her father in Italy since the hub of artisans was at the centre of Europe. During that time, she would spend hours in the galleries of Milan copying the paintings of Old Masters, a privilege and honour for any artist. Later, they went to visit additional regions of southern Europe to broaden Kauffman’s knowledge of the Renaissance and perfect her technical skills. She studied the works of Correggio in Parma and Caracci in Bologna and tried producing their copies as her training. In 1762, when she arrived in Florence city, she obtained permission to copy the master paintings at the Uffizi in a separate room and was then accepted as a member of Florence’s prestigious Accademia del Disegno in the same year. Following her travels, she explored Rome in 1763 and Naples after fulfilling commissions to copy the paintings in the Royal Collection of Capodimonte. During this period, she acquired the skills of Neoclassicism art.

Angelica Kauffman’s paintings during this period majorly demonstrated her awareness and involvement in antiquity and neoclassicism. In Naples, she painted portraits for Englishmen such as Dravid Garrick, Anglo-American Dr John Morgan of Philadelphia, Devon, etc, who afterwards became her patrons.

Portrait of David Garrick by Angelica Kauffman
Portrait of David Garrick by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Burghley House Preservation Trust Limited

There is a noteworthy fact that her sketchbook included numerous portraits of studies from Antique, Titian’s Pesaro Madonna in Venice and Rembrandt’s self-portrait.

Study of a Standing Woman by Angelica Kauffman
Study of a Standing Woman by Angelica Kauffman | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A sketch of Rembrandt's self portrait by Angelica Kauffman
A sketch of Rembrandt’s self portrait by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
An untitled Angelica Kauffman sketch
An untitled Angelica Kauffman sketch | Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Angelica Kauffman sketch Marriage of Saint Catherine
Angelica Kauffman sketch Marriage of Saint Catherine | Source: Unknown Author

Looking at the First Historical Paintings of the Artist.

As Angelica Kauffman stayed in Italy, she had a variety of commissions from portraits to religious subjects, however, her studies and practice towards Antique art shaped her career as a history painter, a genre which very few women practised.

One of the earliest known Angelica Kauffman paintings of the history genre is Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, Discovered by Bacchus, signed and dated in 1764. The artist portrayed the God of Wine with his leopard skin, thyrsus and a crown of vine leaves, having a muscular body, which traces its position and dress to a period of Antiquity. He looks down at the weeping maiden reclining in the erotic pose of Venetian Renaissance beauty, draped in a sheer white fabric and lounged on a vibrant red blanket, giving a subtle contrast in the composition.

Bacchus Discovering the abandoned Ariadne Angelica Kauffman paintings
Bacchus discovering the abandoned Ariadne by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the more famous history paintings by Angelica Kauffman was Bacchus Discovering the Abandoned Ariadne, a commission from John Byng, depicting the scene of Greek and Roman history. The theme of the artwork was the story of Coriolanus, where the Roman hero was banished by his own people, and in anger, he joined their enemies to attack Rome.

In another scene of Coriolanus Entreated by His Mother, Ventturia and his wife, Volumnia; both the women accompanied by Coriolanus’s children stand before him in his camp to stop the war against his native land. His mother shows her outstretched arm, appearing to speak, which comes after he steps forward to embrace her. The pose speaks for peace and family unity, ultimately convincing him to withdraw his troops.

History paintings were the most strenuous and demanding genre, which needed to have an extensive knowledge of literature and history, skills of drawing the human figure, perspective and technical understanding of frescoes or canvas. Hence, there were very few women painters, who were proficient history painters, and Angelica Kauffman was one among them. Further, anatomy was a leading challenge for women as they were not allowed to draw nude models of males, and so they grasped knowledge through the study of sculpture and painting.

In Italy, as we know that Kauffman studied the works of most old masters and acquainted herself with Antique sculpture and architecture, so she developed her skills of perspective, chiaroscuro, colour, proportion and elegance of form. Hence, to form a foundation for the creation of suitable and noble subjects, she read the history and poetry of various languages. After she started her journey to London from Italy, she was thoroughly prepared to be a painter of history and portraits. 

Arrival in England and Her Partners.

Angelica Kauffman succeeded as an artist in the British due to her ability to produce a variety of art. She was an excellent portraitist, a genre which Britishers demanded most. Her decorative mythological and allegorical scenes were suitable for reproduction on painted furniture, ceramics and textiles. During this period, she did marry twice, where her first marriage was nearly a disastrous scandal. From the biographies in German and English, she tended to have a physical charm and feminine wile. They also stressed and speculated on the various supposed relationships with men, including engagement with Nathaniel Dance in Italy, a suspected marriage proposal from Reynolds and her seduction by Jean-Paul Marat.

Portrait of French Leader Jean Paul Marat
Portrait of Jean Paul Marat by Joseph Boze | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of her first marriage, the man, Count Frederic de Horn, tricked her at the end of 1767 to remain in England. However, the illegal union soon dissolved, and her father paid him off. Despite her disastrous and illegal marriage, she maintained freedom of work and heavy aspirations towards her profession. At 40, Angelica Kauffman married again to Antonio Zucchi, who was a great partner to her.

During her time in England, she enjoyed success, privileges, and notable earnings.

After a few years, she went back to her native land as her father wished for his last years. Now that you know a brief about her life, let us move towards learning towards her artworks in detail.

Briefly Analyzing Angelica Kauffman Paintings.

1. The Portrait of Theresa Parker.

As part of the Grand Salon exhibition, Reynolds painted a large portrait of Theresa Parker in 1773 that could pair with that of her ancestor and also be a more informal portrait, which he added her son to later. At this same time, Kauffman also made her portrait to gift her close friend Lady Anne Pelham. There is an entry in her account book for 29 May 1773, which indicates the payment to Miss Angelica for the three-quarter length portrait given to Lady Pelham. And this portrait is none other than artwork, the Portrait of Theresa Parker.

The Portrait of Theresa Parker by Joshua Reynolds
The Portrait of Theresa Parker by Joshua Reynolds | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Coming to the painting, Angelica treated the figure in a way that was intended for a particular recipient. Theresa is wearing a gauzy white embroidered garment suggesting an informal and timeless quality. The dress belongs to the category of pseudo-Turkish dress, which Kauffman frequently included in her paintings for female sitters in the mid-1770s. The subject gazes thoughtfully at an ideal Antique-style bust of a woman, which the artist added from her own drawing made several years ago, during her trip to Italy. Upon the pedestal are carved the Three Graces holding arms entwined, which symbolize the reciprocity of true friendship and beauty, and the evergreen wreath Myrtle Theresa clasps represents constancy. Angelica used this symbolism as the bond of friendship. The overall appearance of the subject, with the carvings and relief features in the background is astonishing.

The Portrait of Theresa Parker by Angelica Kauffman
The Portrait of Theresa Parker by Angelica Kauffman | Source Art9000

2. Penelope Invoking Minerva’s Aid for the Safe Return of Telemachus.

The painting is a typical composition of the Kauffman style in the mid-1770s. Unlike previous Baroque paintings, which had a darker and heavier baroque-effect, this style represents a more developed, lighter, fluid and delicate treatment of figures and backgrounds. Throughout this composition, Penelope graciously raises one arm towards the goddess statue atop a pedestal while raising the other upwards in opposition. Despite being described as being a portrait of Francis Anne Hoare as Penelope, the figure’s idealized features do not resemble those in Kauffman’s known portrait of Francis Hoare at Stourhead, which depicts her with a bust of Clio. At the very least, Francis Hoare wished to be considered a serious-scholarly woman, perhaps because she had a particular interest in history. 

Penelope Invoking Minerva’s Aid for the Safe Return of Telemachus Angelica Kauffman Paintings
Penelope Invoking Minerva’s Aid for the Safe Return of Telemachus by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

The story behind the painting is that Penelope, who is accompanied by her attendants, invokes the aid of Minerva or Athene (represented by a statue standing on a round plinth. Minerva, disguised as Telemachus’ old guardian Mentor, set out to find Ulysses after he failed to return home after the Trojan wars, but he too got waylaid, and his mother is praying for his return. 

The gracious poses of the subjects, the accustomed long dresses with shine and embroidery, soulful expressions, and historical carvings in the background are a few noteworthy points of the composition which make it stand apart.

3. Vergil Writing His Own Epitaph at Brundisium(1), Pliny the Younger, With His Mother at Misenum(2) And Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi, Pointing To Her Children as Her Treasures(3).

These three noteworthy of her later paintings were a group for George Bowles of the Royal Academy in 1786, so I am showing all of these in a single point. The scenes are moralizing scenes from Roman history associated with Naples. In the last painting, the subject is of particular interest because Kauffman repeated it in a version for Prince Poniatowsky, nephew of the King of Poland, and for Queen Caroline of Naples- for it represents a famous Roman matron who exemplified femininity by raising her two sons. The seated woman shows off her jewellery with thoughtless pride in contrast with Cornelia’s modest gesture to her sons. As Kauffman places Cornelia and her young daughter between the two women, she heightens the moral issue. While clutching her mother’s hands, the little girl fingers the jewellery longingly; she is not yet mature enough to make an informed decision. While Cornelia devotes herself to her sons, Pliny remains devoted to his mother, even during Vesuvisus’ devasting eruption.

All these paintings represent a simple, almost severe austerity, making the most classic paintings of Kauffman’s career. The use of shallow space, warm colours and simple figure arrangements reflects the knowledge of Pompeiian painting. All the figures are remarkable monuments of stoic Neoclassicism. Among all these paintings, the majestic poses with a dramatic appeal to the background and exceptional draping of clothes are similar. 

4. Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus.

The story behind the painting rotates in the mythological scene of Greek when Ariadne was abandoned by her beloved one. Theseus, who went to Crete on a mission to kill the Minotaur, the father of Ariadne, who gave sacrifices to stop a curse, was seen by Ariadne, and she fell in love with him. When she approached this hero’s help in exchange for marrying her and getting off the island, which for her was a prison, Theseus could not refuse. But as Theseus finished the mission of killing the Minotaur and fled the island with her, he saw Ariadne fall asleep on his ferry. He decided to sail again and abandon her. Angelica painted the misery of the separation of Ariadne’s beloved by treachery.

Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus Angelica Kauffman Painting
Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Google Arts & Culture

The painting focuses on the reclining miserable lady with the jewel box on one side and a sandal on the other. One of the crucial things is that Angelica always painted the sentimental and grief-stricken characters in her history paintings, as she mastered showing figures in erotic poses. Hence, this painting becomes a crucial work of hers, showing Adriane with such timeless beauty, yet in miserably and horrible grief.

5. Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Painting of Helen of Troy.

The painting portrays the story of Zeuxis, who wanted to portray the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Troy. And in the urge of this, he combined the best features of five other models, explaining the five models in the painting. Zeuxis, the artist is busy in the act of anatomical study as he inspects one of the models and the other three prepare for the master’s gaze. It is the fifth model, having few features of Kauffman, who steps a way forward towards the canvas, picks up his brush and is about to start painting. Angelica represented the male figure with curling hairs, smooth contours and draped limbs, which also shows her lack of anatomical study of men. However, they look like the Roman relief sculptures of beautiful young men, the Antinuous in the Albani Collection. The women models appear, unlike other Angelica’s compositions. The use of bare breasts to show femininity, Turkish long dresses, erotic and majestic poses, and sensible expressions are the typical components of her figures here.

Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Painting of Helen of Troy Angelica Kauffman Paintings
Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Painting of Helen of Troy by Angelica Kauffman | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Final Words.

Angelica Kauffman was one of the very few history painters working in England, and the reason that the native artists could take up this branch of art. With numerous portraits in her lifetime and history paintings, she knew what type of art could impress her clients. She has always maintained her accustomed elegance and classical taste, from selecting the stories she wanted to display to portraying the figures in her best way. As the heart of the British, I surely love her artwork, especially portraits, more than any other artist.


1. Miss Angel: The Art and World of Angelica Kauffman by Angelica Goodden.

2. ANGELICA. The portrait of an eighteenth-century artist by Adeline Hartcup.

3. Angelica Kauffmann, R.A.,: Her life and her works by Lady Victoria Manners and Dr. G.C. Williamson.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who was Angelica Kauffman?

Angelica Kauffman was a Swiss-born Neoclassicist painter who mastered the history art genre. Remembered as an excellent portraitist, she was a member of Florence’s prestigious Accademia del Disegno and a crucial painter of the 18th century, especially in England.

What kind of artist was Angelica Kauffmann?

Angelica Kauffmann was a Neoclassicist who excelled in the History painting genre and found great success as a portraitist.

Where did Angelica Kauffman live?

Angelica Kauffman was born in Coire, the capital of Grisons, in Switzerland. However, the artist travelled to Italy, Florence and Naples for getting acquainted with art and spent approximately 15 years in England, where she gained success as a portraitist. Later she settled in her homeland to fulfil his father’s wish during his last years.

What influenced Angelica Kauffman?

Angelica Kauffman appeared to have been inspired by the old masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, for which the artist spent her time copying and learning from their artworks.

Why was Angelica Kauffman so important?

Angelica Kauffman often referred to as the Queen of Neoclassicism brought back antiquity to the art by getting inspired and learning from the paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. She was the first female member of the Royal Academy and a member of Florence’s prestigious Accademia del Disegno. Additionally, she was among the few female painters who took commissions for frescoes and history art making her immensely successful during the 18th century.


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