Angelica Kauffman at the Royal Academy review: still exceptional, even if the sentimentality is a bit cloying

Self-portrait of the artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman, 1794 (John Hammond)
Self-portrait of the artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman, 1794 (John Hammond)

The 18th century painter Angelica Kauffman was an artist altogether of her age – but she had one very modern attribute: she was a terrific promoter of her brand. She painted many self-portraits, of which this exhibition at the Royal Academy has several, calculated to show off her talent to its most lucrative advantage. Contemporaries knew what to make of her with a bust of Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, or in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry.

She could protect her brand too. When the Irish painter Nathaniel Hone painted a satirical picture of a Conjurer (playing with the RA’s president Sir Joshua Reynolds’ reputation for recycling Old Master motifs), she took umbrage at being identified with the little girl at his knee – and possibly with the female figure with an easel in the background, wearing nothing but black stockings. She wrote to the Royal Academy to demand the withdrawal of the picture and threatening to withhold her own work; she won.

Kauffman, who was born in Switzerland, was one of the two female founding members of the Royal Academy, a distinction she partly owed to her reputation; partly to her friendship with Reynolds as well as the Royal Family. Famously, in Zoffany’s painting of the first Academicians at the life class – which women couldn’t attend – she and Mary Moser were represented as portraits on the walls.

Sir Joshua Reynolds by Angelica Kauffman, 1767 (Rob Matheson)
Sir Joshua Reynolds by Angelica Kauffman, 1767 (Rob Matheson)

Crucially, her preference was the very masculine genre of history painting – grand subjects from antiquity or history which comprised two thirds of her output. Portrait painting she regarded as a useful means of making money and building reputation. The trouble here is that for modern observers, it is the portraits which show character; the rest which seems affected. This isn’t Kauffman’s fault; the neoclassicism-turned-early romanticism was intended to inspire pathos. Three centuries later it leaves us unmoved.

So, the portrait of Johann Winckelmann, whose lectures on perspective she attended, is intensely alive. Ditto her terrific portrait of Reynolds, twisted over the back of his chair (very Franz Hals) to look at the viewer. Her later portraits of women show them as they wanted, in classical mode: Emma Hamilton here is the Muse of Comedy. Curators tell us that Kaufmann inspired her younger contemporary, Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun, but (whisper it) her successor was rather better.

Yet Kauffman brought a distinctively female touch to the big subjects. Her take on English history included a depiction of Queen Eleonora Sucking the Venom Out of the Wound of Her Husband, King Edward I, which was all Grecian profiles and antique drapery. It also demonstrated her painterly mastery of flesh and fabric.

The most pathetic, in the 18th century sense of inspiring pathos, was Poor Maria, a poignant figure from Laurence Stern’s Sentimental Journey who languishes – there is no other verb – by the wayside. The very contemporary sentimentality feels cloying now – but Kauffman was still a commercially successful and highly rated woman artist. Respect.

Royal Academy, from March 1 to June 30;