A History of Art in England (25): History Painting (ii) – Angelica Kauffman

Kauffmann, Angelica, 1741-1807; Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807) Self-Portrait

[early 1770s, National Portrait Gallery, artuk.org]

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s promotion of Grand History painting was, perhaps, not quite fulfilled in his own work. However, there were others among the first Academicians who certainly can be understood as ‘History Painters’.

The Royal Academy website notes:

Although Angelica Kauffman was born in Switzerland and spent only 15 years in England (1766-1781) she made a significant impact on the London art scene. Admired and encouraged by Sir Joshua Reynolds, she and Mary Moser became the only two female Members of the Royal Academy. No further women were elected until Annie Swynnerton became an Associate in 1922.

As a painter of historical subjects and portraits, Kauffman’s Neo-classical style conformed to the theories advocated in Reynolds’s Discourses.
She was invited to make her mark on the Royal Academy’s first purpose built home in new Somerset House, when commissioned to paint four allegorical images of the ‘Elements of Art’ (1778-1780) for its Council Chamber ceiling. The works are now positioned in the Entrance Hall ceiling at Burlington House.

Invention (left)
The figure of Invention is the most otherworldly of Kauffman’s four elements of art. Her winged head, celestial orb and upward gaze suggest her capability for higher thought.

Composition (right)
The figure of Composition sits on the boundary between architecture and nature. She contemplates a chessboard while holding a compass, both of which suggest the virtues of planning and precision.

Design (left)
The figure of Design makes studies from the Belvedere torso within a classical architectural setting. Her interest is in proportion, scale and form based on antique prototypes.

Colour (right)
Colour is depicted as an unrestrained female stealing pigment from a rainbow. She is seated on a grassy ledge with a chameleon at her feet – her hair and costume are loose. In touch with nature, she is more intuitive than the figures of Design or Composition.

More in line with her renown as a History Painter is

Rambling 6

“Hector Taking Leave of Andromache” (1768) by Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807)
[National Trust, Saltram; c/o artuk.org]
The beauty of this painting is perhaps its intimacy, even sensuality, as Hector and Andromache lean in towards each other, their hands holding. “Hector and Andromache fit the Greek ideal of a happy and productive marriage, which heightens the tragedy of their shared misfortune. Once Achilles kills Hector (in the Trojan War), Andromache is utterly alone.” (from Wikipedia).

Particularly fascinating is Kauffman’s turn to aspects of British history:

Rambling 7

Vortigern, King of Britain, Enamoured with Rowena at the Banquet of Hengist, the Saxon General [National Trust, Saltram c/o artuk.org]

The National Trust tells us:

The ancient legend tells how the Britons were betrayed to the Saxons. Rowena is kneeling and accepting a cup from Vortigern, Prince of South East Britain, who has fallen in love with her. Her father, the Saxon, Hengist is present, standing behind whilst soldiers sit a round a table.

There are numerous paintings by Kauffman to explore at artuk.org, including another favourite of British artists: a portrait of Shakespeare and scenes from various plays.

Rambling 8

Portrait of Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) George Romney [c. 1770-71, National Portrait Gallery]

Whilst Kauffman focused on portraits and history paintings, Mary Moser – also a founding member of the Royal Academy – was interested primarily in flower painting.

(I particularly love…)

Moser, Mary, 1744-1819; Vase of Flowers

Vase of Flowers [no date; The Fitzwilliam Museum]

Moser’s skill in flower painting led to the position of drawing mistress to the Royal Princess Elizabeth and several royal commissions. The most notable of these came from Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, in the 1790s. The Queen had recently been given Frogmore House as a country retreat and she commissioned Moser to decorate a room for which she wanted Moser to create the illusion of an “arbor open to the skies”. Moser designed a complex arrangement of both large-scale canvases and painted walls, all depicting English flower arrangements (Royal Academy)

There is a great mini-biography of Moser by Julia Herdman.

Whilst History Painting remained the cherished Ideal, and despite the fact that in Britain that Ideal never really took root as it had in Italy, or in France – it could be used in a very national, patriotic way. France had undergone its revolution in 1789 – terrifying the British authorities and encouraging radicalism from new social philosophies including Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women and the poetry of Wordsworth with which we might recognise the dawning of the Romantic Age. By 1793 war had broken out between Britain and France; in 1804 Napoleon had declared himself Emperor; there was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and the turmoil continued through to Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo 1815.

It is perhaps through the attempt to create a British History painting tradition, combined with the context of war with France, that there comes into being an art that is closely tied to the state, that of Military Painting from Benjamin West’s

West, Benjamin, 1738-1820; The Immortality of Nelson

The Immortality of Nelson
(1807, Royal Maritime Museum)

“Nelson… borne heavenward towards the embrace of Britannia” (Roy Porter)

Rambling 10

and  Denis Dighton (1792–1827)’s The Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815 [1816; National Trust, Plas Newydd]

The turn into the 19th century is an intense time then, with war and social-cultural dislocation. It is also a time when art in Britain really began to come into its own, primarily through two extraordinary artists: William Blake and JMW Turner.

It’s to the art of Turner that we’ll turn next in a series I’ve called “Turner and the Sun”…


There is an article on Angelia Kauffman c/o the Royal Academy of Arts here.

Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (25)

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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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