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.

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