Even Purer than Before

Rosemary Hill

  • Miss Angel: The Art and World of Angelica Kauffman by Angelica Goodden
    Pimlico, 389 pp, £17.99, September 2005, ISBN 1 84413 758 9

Lady Elizabeth Foster sits beneath a tree and avoids our gaze, lost, it seems, in thought. Behind her the Italian countryside is bathed in a warm autumnal light that sets off the delicate white and cream of her softly ruffled dress and fashionable Leghorn hat. She too is fair, her pink and white complexion carefully shaded from the afternoon sun. Painted by Angelica Kauffman in Naples and Rome in 1785 and 1786, this is a picture of refined innocence: a picture, but not in the truest sense a portrait. Elizabeth Foster was a beauty, but a notorious one. She had come to Italy to conceal an inconvenient pregnancy and had recently given birth to the Duke of Devonshire’s illegitimate daughter in a seedy boarding-house in Vietri. Having left the baby with a wet nurse, she embarked on a liaison with the Russian ambassador. Her standing in Neapolitan society was, at best, shaky.

The English expatriates in Italy in the 1780s were a mixed bunch and Elizabeth Foster was not the only one for whom Kauffman deployed her brush to paint an elegant front over a shady background. Lady Elizabeth’s father, the equally scandalous Frederick Hervey, Fourth Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, also posed. Famous for drunkenness, womanising, bad language and, despite being in holy orders, a striking disrespect for religion (which he demonstrated in Siena by tipping a tureen of pasta from an upper window onto a procession of the Host passing below), he appears contemplating a bust of Maecenas in tactful allusion to almost his only respectable enthusiasm, his love of the arts. Emma Hart was in Rome and about to marry Sir William Hamilton: in the nick of time, just as her looks were on the turn from voluptuous to blowsy. Kauffman painted her as Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, holding a theatrical mask which she appears to be in the act of removing, though to some minds she might have been better depicted putting it on. The entry of this morally dubious and undoubtedly plebeian beauty into polite society was widely considered to be something of a farce in itself.

It was nothing new for portraitists to flatter their sitters or for allegory to come to the aid of an artist confronted with a socially ambiguous woman, but in Kauffman’s work it is remarkable how much polish and sunshine there is and how little grit. Sensuality or even particularity seldom ruffle the lovely surface. This was what made her so popular in her day. Both financially and critically, she was one of the most successful artists who ever lived. Admired across Europe and especially fêted in England, where she spent fifteen years, Kauffman was one of only two women among the founder members of the Royal Academy. Admittedly not everyone cared for such smoothness, even at the time. Goethe, who liked her personally, disliked her portrait of him, finding it ‘effeminate’, and her reputation declined quickly after her death. The Victorians found her decadent and deplored the occasionally weak draughtsmanship which betrayed the fact that as a woman Kauffman was never permitted to attend life classes or draw from a nude model. Her anxiety to please and to turn all subjects to favour and to prettiness has also made her a problematic figure for feminist art historians, although Germaine Greer made a spirited case for her in The Obstacle Race.

Angelica Goodden’s biographical account makes little attempt to elaborate critically on what has been said already about the art, or to suggest that it has any greater depth than has generally been thought, but by discussing art and life together Goodden makes clear the extent to which the tension between appearance and reality in Kauffman’s paintings was matched by an equivalent need on her part to show only the best side of herself and her life to the world. If she knew, or imagined she knew, how her sitters would want to appear, it was because since childhood she had been anxiously polishing her own self-image.

Born in 1741 in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and an Austrian father, Kauffman was an accomplished artist by the age of 12. It was then that she painted the first of her many self-portraits and the last in which she attempted to make herself look older rather than younger than she was. The assured little person with powdered curls, holding a sheet of manuscript music and staring straight ahead, seems more than ready to begin the world, which was just as well. An only child whose mother died, not extravagantly lamented, when she was 15, Angelica early on became the pride, joy and main means of financial support of her father, Johann Joseph, an itinerant decorative painter. The family moved to Milan when Angelica was about 13 and she was soon turning out highly saleable copies of Old Masters. Her childhood, such as it was, like that of her younger contemporary Mozart, was spent on the road and in intensely close proximity to her father. It was the central relationship of her life, although Goodden doesn’t have much evidence for her diagnosis of ‘father-fixation’. Indeed, such was Kauffman’s desire to control information about herself, there is very little evidence for anything beyond the barest circumstances. As a subject for biography she is elusive to the point of near invisibility, and although by broadening the scope of her book to the ‘art and world’ as well as the life, Goodden keeps her narrative going, her principal character is inevitably off stage for much of the time.

Kauffman destroyed almost all her papers shortly before her death and gave conflicting accounts of her birth. She always insisted that her real home was in Austria, in the Bregenz Woods, for which she often claimed to pine, but which she had in reality visited only three times. It was an innocent enough fiction, a piece of fashionable sensibility perhaps; of some of the less palatable elements in her background she may have been unaware. She may never have known that her 16-year-old ‘cousin’ Joseph, who appeared in the Kauffman family in 1750, travelled with them for some time and then drifted away again to pursue a much less successful career as an artist, was in fact her half-brother, the product of her father’s earlier and long-abandoned marriage. It seems unlikely that Kauffman had any very dark secrets to hide. The purpose of the carefully cultivated public image was apparently the more positive one of creating an idealised version of the female artist, dedicated, spiritual and above all sexually pure.

Any woman who pursued a profession in the 18th century, no matter how respectable, had to be careful and was likely to be subject to gossip and censure whatever she did. As a young woman Kauffman was often described as a ‘coquette’: there was much speculation about her relationship with Joshua Reynolds, and Marat later claimed to have seduced her in London. There was no substance to most of it, but Kauffman knew the risks she ran. When lovely woman stooped to folly, the consequences usually depended on how far up the social scale she had started. Elizabeth Foster eventually became the Duchess of Devonshire. Emma Hamilton ended up fat and broke in Calais. When Kauffman came to England in 1766 she had little to protect her beyond her talent and a shrewd business sense. She was already at 25 a sensationally popular painter on the Continent but the move to London was a new departure in more ways than one, for she travelled without her father, arriving under the protection of Lady Wentworth, wife of the British ambassador to Venice. She was soon launched in society, all the more rapidly since she had advertised her arrival by sending on ahead her portrait of David Garrick. Yet the London which threw itself at her feet two years after Hogarth’s death was still recognisably Hogarth’s town, a mixture of polish and jagged edges in which high taste and low life mingled uneasily. Kauffman’s reputation quivered a little when the engraver William Ryland, with whom she had a close professional relationship, and inevitably it was rumoured a personal one, was arrested for forgery, tried and hanged.

Her self-portraits offer a mute riposte to the rumours. In them she is ever young and ever lovely, chastely wedded to her art. If she is not actually at work she is to be found in impeccable allegorical company in The Character of Painting Embraced by Poetry or Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting. And yet however much allowance is made for the mores of the day, these are striking exercises in concealment. Louise Vigée Le Brun, 14 years Kauffman’s junior and to some extent her rival, painted herself as often and with a degree of calculation, but with much more animation, embracing her daughter, looking outward with parted lips at the viewer, apparently about to speak. Kauffman’s images promise no such exchange: she is impassive, monumental. And here perhaps they hint at some underlying truth.

In life too it seems there was a distance about her. Despite living in an age of great diarists and letter-writers, many of whom she knew, remarkably little was said about her. Horace Walpole and Fanny Burney are among those who are disappointingly laconic. Even people who knew her well and admired her did so for qualities that did not lend themselves to anecdote. Johann Fiorillo wrote of her ‘exceptional sweetness’; Herder, who later had a long amitié amoureuse with her in Italy, thought her a ‘beautiful soul’, almost a saint. The best picture of her is by Nathaniel Dance, another putative lover, who shows her with the particularity of affection, making her less lovely but more interesting, with a slightly bulbous nose and a deeply intelligent gaze, neither of which appears in the self-portraits. Dance drew her again later in a spiteful caricature: perhaps he had indeed been spurned by a woman who undoubtedly excelled at friendship, but for whom intimacy was more difficult. The one attempt she made at it was the great disaster of her life.

Despite the letters she sent home, which were clearly calculated to put him off, her father joined her in London after a year. It was soon after this that she married a man who, it was later said, had claimed to be a Swedish count, Frederick de Horn. That the marriage took place secretly and was a short-lived fiasco – later annulled – is certain. All the rest is rumour. If Horn was a bigamist, or impotent, or an impostor put up to it by another man whom Kauffman had rejected, or whether she simply fell madly in love after a short spell out of her father’s compelling orbit, is unclear. The story that grew up around the episode originated with Johann Joseph and was calculated to vindicate his daughter by throwing as much obloquy as possible on her suitor. By the time Goodden has finished unravelling it, it is as personally unrevealing as one of Kauffman’s own allegorical paintings. Only Herder’s account of an occasion, many years later, when Kauffman tried to tell him what had happened but found herself too distressed to carry on, hints at a personal tragedy rather than merely an embarrassing social debacle.

Thanks to her father’s deft spinning of the facts, Kauffman emerged from her marriage with, as Goodden puts it, ‘an enhanced reputation for virginity’: thus, even purer than before, she continued to paint and to command considerable sums for her work. Reynolds had fixed her prices for her when she arrived, and although they were high she was constantly busy. Society women took to her, confiding in her, as they might in a celebrity hairdresser, for she was discreet, ladylike enough in her manners to be treated as an equal, but not equal enough to answer back. She in return continued to portray her sitters in an even, flattering light.

Kauffman was anxious, however, to go beyond portraiture and scale the academic heights of history painting. In this she had only a limited success, but that was to be expected. No one, not even Reynolds, could generate much enthusiasm in England for this supposedly supreme art form. The English generally preferred pictures of themselves, their houses, their horses, of almost anything, in fact, to Vortigern and Rowena or Lady Elizabeth Grey Imploring of Edward IV Restitution of Her Deceased Husband’s Land. They regarded paintings, as Hogarth observed, as furniture; and it was in furnishing and decoration that Kauffman became most widely popular and influential. Her allegorical scenes were reproduced on all manner of luxury goods and accessories. They suited perfectly the delicate Neoclassical Adam style, and three of the most important Adam interiors, Northumberland House, Osterley Park and Kedleston Hall, incorporated designs based on her paintings. Further down the social scale, as industrialisation speeded up and the merchant classes prospered, the production and consumption of snuff boxes, ornamental porcelain, tea caddies, fans and all manner of other knick-knacks accelerated too. Her designs were reproduced on plates and bookcases. A relatively modest home might aspire to Beauty Directed by Prudence on a firescreen or an embroidered Muse of Poetry Paying Homage to Shakespeare. Kauffman became a household name in many more households than could afford her original work, the still eye of a storm of ‘Angelicamania’. Her success as a decorative artist added to her wealth and fame and says a great deal for her business sense, but it did little for her posthumous reputation, seeming as it did to confirm the triviality of her art.

In 1781, just before she left England to go back to Italy, Kauffman married again. Antonio Zucchi was a decorative painter and a friend of her father. He was 55 and she was 39. It was an arrangement, apparently a happy one, that effectively passed Kauffman from the increasingly frail hands of Johann Joseph onto a trustworthy protector of whom she was undoubtedly fond. There would be no more forays into romance and no more rumours. The rest of her life passed on the Continent with continuing success. The deaths of her father and later her husband much grieved her, and the decline of her income with the Revolutionary Wars aggravated her constant anxiety about money, but she died still wealthy and much admired in Rome in 1807.

‘Was she really worth it?’ Goodden asks somewhat ungraciously in her final chapter, to which one can only answer: ‘Worth what?’ Not, certainly, the most extravagant of the tributes paid to her in her lifetime, but worth surely a biography from which she emerges as an impressive if poignant figure, and worth the efforts made by historians over the last fifteen years or so to establish her oeuvre and bring her in from the margins. Certainly she was worth her place among the founders of the Royal Academy. Her painting has real merit, and her achievement in creating a role for herself as a female artist was remarkable – at what personal cost she took care that we should never know. Ideas about art and morals change, however. Posterity has found it hard to forgive her the very qualities that made her a success in Georgian England: discretion and good taste.