Angelica Kauffman RA, Composition

Composition, 1778-80

Angelica Kauffman RA (1741 - 1807)

RA Collection: Art

This painting is on display at the RA in the Angelica Kauffman exhibition in the Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing of Galleries, Burlington House until 30 June 2024.

This painting representing Composition is part of a set of the four 'Elements of Art' commissioned from Kauffman by the Royal Academy to decorate the ceiling of the Royal Academy's new Council Chamber in Somerset House which opened in 1780. The Elements comprise the four fundamental stages of creating an artwork: Invention, Design, Composition and Colouring.

Composition is shown as an allegorical female figure dressed in white and ochre with a pale red mantle, she is resting her head on her hand while her arm is leaning against the base of a column. Like the figure of Invention, the image alludes to intellectual activities symbolised by the game of chess and the compass, representing a strategic disposition and precision. The figure sits on the boundary between architecture and nature as Composition draws inspiration from both fields. On the left are sheets of paper and a pen alluding to the preparatory drawings an artist makes in the process of creating a composition.

The four oval paintings were commissioned from Kauffman by the Royal Academy to be part of a decorative scheme including paintings by Benjamin West in the centre includingThe Graces Unveiling Nature (03/1127) and the four elements: Earth (03/1125), Air (03/1123), Water (03/1124) and Fire (03/1126). The two artists were paid at the same rate, Kauffman received £100 for her four paintings and West £125 for his five. Twelve portraits by Biagio Rebecca surrounded the scheme, but these are now untraced. Design and Composition can be seen side by side on the ceiling of the Council Room in Henry Singleton’s painting The Royal Academicians in General Assembly from 1795 (03/1310).

The ‘Elements of Art’ have been interpreted in relation to the theory of art expressed in Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art and in earlier art theory. Reynolds wrote of Inventionthat ‘whenever a story is related, every man forms a picture in his mind of the action and expression of the persons employed. The power of representing this mental picture on canvas is what we call invention in a Painter’ (Reynolds, p.54).

Kauffman represented each of her four Elements of Art as women. Female personifications of abstract concepts and values were commonplace in European art but depicting all four as women was unusual. Design (or Disegno), in particular, was known as 'the father of all the arts' and was traditionally depicted as a man, often in contrast to Colour or Painting personified as a woman (see Baumgartel). In Design and Colouring, the women are physically engaged in the act of creating whereas in Composition and Invention they are shown in contemplation. In Invention the figure looks to the sky for inspiration and in Composition she is deep in thought with her head resting on her hand in the traditional gesture of melancholy or reverie.

Kauffman’s works contain many symbols sourced from classical iconographic traditions. She would have known dictionaries of iconography such as Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia. Kauffman’s Invention, for instance, incorporates elements of Ripa's description and depiction of this figure as a young woman, dressed in white with two wings on her head and raised arms showing the elevation of the intellect. Kauffman's Painting, however, is rare in using the rainbow and chameleon as symbols of colour (these motifs were traditionally used in iconography representing Air) and while Ripa's 'Design' is presented a young man, Kauffman's is a woman. Her thoughtful figure of Composition also holds a compass in her right hand which in Ripa is held by Design.

Kauffman's ceiling paintings were well-received at the time. In his 1781 guide to Somerset House, Joseph Baretti described these works by the ‘celebrated Angelica'

as being painted ‘with all the grace, elegance, and accuracy, which distinguish the best productions of this extraordinary Lady.’ He also described the figures as being at different stages of life: Colour is a “blooming young Virgin”; Invention is “in the flower of her age”; and Composition is “somewhat more advanced in life than Invention” (Baretti, p.26).

When the Royal Academy left Somerset House in 1837 to a shared building with the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, the ceiling paintings were transferred. While documents in the Royal Academy’s Archive indicate the paintings were displayed in the Council Room in Trafalgar Square, as they had been at Somerset House (Council minutes XX, 1899, p.431 and General Assembly minutes, 1899, pp.57-58), Hutchison writes that West’s paintings were in the Council Room but Kauffman’s were in the Library (Hutchison, 1986, p.88). A drawing in the National Archives from 1832 of the design for the Council Room at Trafalgar Square shows space allocated for both the West and Kauffman paintings (WORKS 33/939). However, as the drawing dates from before the Royal Academy moved, it is unclear whether this scheme was used.

The ceiling paintings were later transferred to the ceiling of the entrance hall for the Royal Academy at Burlington House in a design by T.G. Jackson. The proposal to hang them there was included in the General Assembly minutes on 20 July 1899, 32 years after the Royal Academy had moved to Burlington House. It was explained “since the removal of the academy to Burlington House [the paintings] had been lying unused in the basement, it became a question whether something might not be done to further improve the somewhat mean aspect of the Hall” (General Assembly minutes, 1899, pp.57-58).

Related Works

Four grisaille studies for the paintings are in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum: Design (E.866-1948); Composition (E.864-1948); Colouring (E.863-1948); and Invention (E.865-1948).

Further Reading

Joseph Baretti, A Guide Through the Royal Academy, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1781, p.26.

Sidney Hutchison, The History of the Royal Academy 1768-1986, 1986 (2nd ed.), London: Robert Royce.

Wendy Wassyng Roworth, Angelica Kauffman: A Continental Artist in Georgian England, Reaktion Books, 1992, p.68.

Helen Valentine, ''The Elements of Art': Four Ceiling Roundels for the Royal Academy of Arts at Somerset House' in Bettina Baumgärtel (ed.), Angelica Kauffman, exhibition catalogue, Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, 2020, pp. 18-23

Bettina Baumgärtel ed., Angelica Kauffman, exhibition catalogue, Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, 2020, catalogue entries 34-41, pp. 102-103

Bettina Baumgärtel and Annette Wickham, Angelica Kauffman, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy 2024, pp. 22, 31-33, 66,

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Object details

Angelica Kauffman RA (1741 - 1807)
Object type
Oil on canvas

1260 mm x 1485 mm x 25 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Commissioned from Angelica Kauffman RA in 1778-1780

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