By Renee Corbino
Wendy Roworth in “Woman, Art, and Politics in 18th century Europe,” a collection of scholarly essays examining the role of woman in art, titles her essay on Angelica Kauffman as “Ancient Matrons and Modern Patrons” and this title accurately encompasses Kauffman’s career as a historical painter who couched allegory, portraiture, and ancient texts in a background of classical settings, characters and landscapes. Because of her time spend in Italy and with Johann Wincklemann, she was highly attuned to classical iconography and tradition, and as one of only six members of the Royal Academy of the Arts designated as history painter she had a profound and lasting influence not only in painting but in decorative arts as well.
Angelica Kauffman was born Maria Anna Angelica Catherine on October 30, 1741 in Switzerland. Her father John Joseph was a church painter and intended for Angelica to be an artistic prodigy. He started her on a strict course of artistic study and by the age of 9 she was an artist in her own right. In 1754, they moved to Milan and Angelica received commissions from the Duke of Modena, the Governor of Milan, the Duchess of Modena and other ladies of rank. Angelica moved to Rome in 1763 and worked as a portrait painter and her most famous works are paintings and portraits for cardinals, counts, and other religious figures. It was here that she met artist Rafael Mengs, who introduced her to Johann Winckelmann, one of the first art historians. He was taken with her “grace and talent” and quickly became one of her mentors. Winkelmann taught Angelica about about Greek and Roman mythology and exposed her to the art of those ancient cultures. Kauffman traveled to Naples with him where she practiced her craft by copying art in the Royal Gallery and pieces from the collection of Cardinal Albani.
In the late 18th century monumental oil paintings of mythological scenes were extremely popular and Kauffman readily incorporated many scenes from Greek and Roman mythology into her work. Some of the most popular scenes were taken directly from the Iliad and the Odyssey, such as this painting of Orestes and Iphegenia. Throughout her career Kauffman painted many allegorical scenes and such as the painting to the right of a nymph presiding in the Temple of Immortality, which also could allude to the myth of Leda and the Swan.
Kauffman was also well known for her portraits, and was extremely popular among the English aristocracy. Women especially sought her out to paint their portraits as muses, goddesses, or simply in a classical setting. Angelica also painted many portraits of men on their grand tour surrounded by ancient ruins and classical objects. She married Antonio Zucchi in 1782 and they worked together for Robert Adam painting historical scenes and classically inspired designs for the interiors of English houses. Kauffman returned to Rome and Naples after her fathers death and painted for the Queen of Naples, but turned down an offer to live at court as the royal painter. She continued to travel extensively visiting all of the areas that she knew as a child. She died in 1807, but her legacy continues to live on in the decorative arts well into the 20th century.
At auction, Angelica Kauffman’s original paintings sell for between $40,000-80,000, with a few outliers above $100,000. Kauffman’s paintings were so popular that they were reproduced in many of the decorative arts including fans, small porcelains, firescreens, and even furniture. Items featuring copies of Angelica’s paintings are readily available on the auction market, selling at various price points depending on age, condition and maker. Prints, such as the one to the left, can typically be bought for under $500. English furniture dating to the 19th century is rare on the market and can be extremely expensive. The demi lune cabinets pictured here are in the style of George III from 1880, and bear paintings after Kauffman’s work. They sold as a pair for $42,000 in October of 2005, and this is typically the price range of this type of rare furniture. Fortunately, this style of furniture with paintings or inlay after Kauffman’s paintings are still reproduced today and can typically be purchased at auction for under $500. Porcelains are the most prolific bearers of Kauffman’s paintings and are perhaps the least expensive, depending on maker and quality. Most porcelains can be had for under $1000, with some pieces well under $100. Her paintings have been incorporated into porcelain urns, cabinet plates, jewelry boxes, and portrait plaques. Most of these types of pieces were produced at kilns in Austria and Germany, but pieces with images after Kauffman also appear from kilns in England and Czechoslovakia.
Angelica Kauffman was instrumental in bringing the ancient world into mainstream culture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although she has been criticized for what some see as her inconsistent techniques, she was clearly one of the most popular painters of her day. Her presentations of aristocracy represented as ancient figures or in a classical landscape were key to their identity and association with the nostalgia of the ancient world, and the incorporation of her images into the decorative arts shows that her influence transcended the fine arts. Angelica Kauffman’s importance as a painter and purveyor of taste is obvious, and items featuring her art and design continue to be sought after even two hundred years after her death.