Angelica Kauffman RA (1741 - 1807)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

The internationally celebrated painter Angelica Kauffman spent 15 years in England, making a significant impact on the London art scene as one of only two female Founder Members of the Royal Academy.

Born in Chur, Switzerland in 1741, Kauffman trained with her father, the Austrian painter Joseph Johann Kauffman, and was recognised as a child prodigy. The family moved between Austria, Switzerland and Italy where she established a reputation as an artist and was elected a member of the Roman Accademia di San Luca at the age of just 23. Although, as a woman, Kauffman was not able to officially enrol at an art academy she nevertheless studied the works of the Old Masters and classical sculpture at first hand. In Italy, she mixed with neoclassical artists and scholars and also met many Grand Tourists. Her popularity among the community of British visitors and expatriates there encouraged her to move to London in 1766.

Soon after arriving in London, Kauffman established a close friendship with Joshua Reynolds, commemorated in the portraits they painted of each other. She also gained a commission to paint Princess Augusta, sister of King George III, and subsequently Queen Charlotte. Her friendship with Reynolds and other artists, along with Royal approval helped to ensure that when the Royal Academy of Arts was established in December1768, Kauffman was among the group of 36 Founder Members (along with one other woman, the painter Mary Moser). Kauffman was in great demand as a portraitist in London but she identified herself primarily as a history painter, the genre Reynolds placed at the heart of the Royal Academy’s teaching. She exhibited history paintings each year at the Royal Academy’s influential annual exhibitions, displaying her erudition by depicting scenes from a wide range of mythologicial, literary and historical sources.

In 1775 Kauffman threatened to leave the Royal Academy due to a dispute about a satirical painting by Nathaniel Hone in the annual exhibition. The Conjuror was a thinly-veiled satire on Reynolds’ working methods but it also took aim at Kauffman (finished version and the oil sketch ). The child at the conjuror’s knee resembles the figure in Kauffman’s painting Hope and, worse still, in the background Hone included a group of naked artists cavorting outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The only female figure in the group represents Kauffman as this scene referred to the painters, Kauffman among them, who were part of a cancelled project to paint the cathedral. The Academy initially prevaricated but when Kauffman said she that she would leave the institution if the painting was not removed the matter was put to a vote. Kauffman won and Hone was asked to remove the offending painting.

In the late 1770s, Kauffman was commissioned by the Royal Academy to paint a set of four ceiling paintings depicting the ‘Elements of Art’, to be displayed in the Council Room of New Somerset House which opened in 1780. A visual representation referencing the theories that Reynolds set out in his Discourses on Art, the four oval paintings present four female figures as Invention, Composition, Design and Colour. The ceiling paintings are usually on display in the Front Hall of Burlington House but they have been taken down for inclusion in the Academy’s forthcoming exhibition on Kauffman and Tate Britain’s ‘Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920’.

Kauffman left London in 1781 to settle in Rome. Returning to Italy at the height of her career, she established an international clientele and a famous salon which attracted celebrated visitors including Goethe and Canova. Kauffman kept up her connections with her many British friends and patrons, continuing to exhibit at the Royal Academy, sending commissions back to the UK and painting Grand Tourists visiting Rome. She continued to develop her practice as both a portraitist and a history painter in Rome, demonstrating even greater confidence and skill in both genres. She painted several accomplished self-portraits during her years in Rome, including one looking back on the choice she made as a young woman between pursuing a career in painting or in music

When Kauffman died in 1807, her grand funeral in Rome was arranged by the famous sculptor Antonio Canova and a bust of the artist, sculpted by her cousin Johann Peter Kauffmann, was subsequently placed in the Pantheon, beside that of Raphael. The funeral itself was described in a letter sent to the Royal Academicians in London and read out in their General Assembly


Royal Academician

Foundation Member

Born: 30 October 1741 in Coire, Switzerland

Died: 5 November 1807

Nationality: Swiss

Elected RA: 10 December 1768

Gender: Female

Preferred media: Painting

Works by Angelica Kauffman in the RA Collection

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Works after Angelica Kauffman in the RA Collection

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Works associated with Angelica Kauffman in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

21 results