This month’s guest post is by the novelist Miranda Miller, who writes about the subject of her latest book, the artist Angelica Kauffman. Angelica, Paintress of Minds was published in summer 2020, when the Royal Academy was to show a major exhibition of the artist’s works; but this, like other public events, was cancelled. Miranda Miller tells Historia about the life of this important painter, a pioneering female founder of the Academy.
A few years ago I had the good fortune to be awarded a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the Courtauld Institute in Somerset House. I became fascinated by the history of the building itself and by the story of the foundation of the Royal Academy there in 1768.
In the library, deep in the basement, I found two excellent books: James Fenton’s School of Genius, a wonderful introduction to the 18th-century art world in London, and Angelica Gooden’s biography of Angelica Kauffman, Miss Angel. Until then I only knew her paintings from visits to Kenwood House. My interest developed into a passionate engagement with Angelica and the many interesting people she painted and befriended. Every time I encountered a name – Reynolds, Canova, Goethe, Madame de Stael, Emma Hamilton and many more – I had to stop writing my novel and read a book, or several books, about them.
Angelica’s mother was Swiss and her father, an unsuccessful painter, was Austrian. She grew up in her father’s studio and he soon realised that she was immensely talented. He used to ask her not to sign her paintings and would pass them off as his own.
Other successful women painters, including Artemisia Gentileschi and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, were also the daughters of painters; without such a background it was very hard for women to acquire an artistic education. Angelica was a prodigy, as can be seen from this self-portrait she did when she was 13.
In addition to being a talented artist Angelica had a beautiful singing voice. All her life she performed as a good amateur singer and played the harpsichord. The great classical scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann said of her: “she sings with our best virtuosi.” This self-portrait dramatises the decision she had to make in her youth to choose between painting and singing.
After establishing herself as a painter in Italy Angelica came to London in 1766, when she was 25. She became so successful that a word was coined to describe people’s obsession with her: ‘Angelicamad’. Her work was reproduced in engravings, as cameos by Wedgwood, on teapots and on Worcester, Meissen and Derby porcelain. The new invention of transfer printing made these items much cheaper and she gained an international reputation.
Her popularity had a price; male artists had sexual freedom but ‘paintresses’ always had to be decorous or risk losing their aristocratic patrons. Angelica was under enormous pressure to behave as ‘Miss Angel’, the affectionate name her friend Joshua Reynolds gave her.
As well as portraits she did history and literary paintings, often showing melancholy women left behind by the macho exploits of their men. She painted many aristocrats and members of the royal family, including Queen Charlotte.
These two intelligent, cultivated young women were about the same age and the Queen, who was lonely in England, was relieved to be able to speak German. It was probably due to the influence of the Queen that Angelica was one of only two women to become founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts when it opened in 1768.
Remarkably, her career and reputation were not damaged by the one mistake she made, her marriage to the ‘Count de Horn‘, who turned out to be a conman.
In Somerset House I stared at a painting by Zoffany of the life drawing class and was intrigued to see that portraits of Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser are on the wall, staring down at the proceedings like ancestors. Although they were both founder members of the Royal Academy, as women they were not allowed to attend life drawing classes there because respectable ladies were not supposed to look at a naked man.
After 15 triumphant and lucrative years in London, Angelica, a Catholic, was terrified by the Gordon Riots in June, 1780, and decided to return to Italy with her second husband, Antonio Zucchi, a Venetian artist.
She had seen many other women artists ruined by marriage because their husbands were jealous of their talent or objected to their earning money as painters, so Angelica drew up what we would call a pre-nuptial agreement, giving her total control over her own money. In fact, Zucchi was happy to be supportive of his more famous wife and their marriage seems to have been a happy one.
Angelica spent her last 25 years in Rome, a city where I lived in my twenties and which I love. Rome was then the centre of the European art world, where all the grand tourists came. Angelica and her husband lived in a splendid house at the top of the Spanish Steps, which became an international cultural centre.
After Zucchi died in 1795 she wrote: “These happy times are over”, and for the last years of her life she lived in fear that the soldiers of Napoleon would arrive and loot her valuable art collection.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation I was able to return to Rome and found that her house has been demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel. I also visited Weimar to learn more about Goethe, with whom I believe she was unrequitedly in love. The portrait she did of him, which Goethe disliked because he didn’t think it made him look heroic enough, is to the right.
Like us, Angelica lived at a time of enormous change and was often bewildered by it. At the end of her life, still anxious to avoid scandal, she made a bonfire of most of her private papers. In my novel I’ve presumptuously tried to bring them back to life.
In order to make a successful career as an artist Angelica had to battle against powerful waves of misogyny. Those battles are still being fought; it was not until 1936 that another woman, Laura Knight, was elected as an RA. Finally, generations of talented women artists are beginning to be recognised. This is the right moment to rediscover Angelica Kauffman’s life and work.
Miranda Miller is a novelist who has also published a book of short stories about expatriate life in Saudi Arabia and a book of interviews with homeless women and politicians. She lives in north London. Her eighth novel, Angelica, Paintress of Minds, was published by Barbican Press last summer and is available from Waterstones or Amazon.
Self-portrait Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman, 1791: via Wikimedia
Self-portrait as singer, holding a sheet of music by Angelica Kauffman, 1753: via Wikimedia
The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Zoffany, 1771–72: via Wikimedia
Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Angelica Kauffman, 1787: via Wikimedia