Originally from Switzerland, Angelica Kauffman arrived in London in 1766. She had received more education than most young women of that time thanks to her artist father, Joseph Johann Kauffman, who was responsible for overseeing her artistic training. While in London, she executed two large portraits of female royals and a number of other portraits, including Self-portrait Personifying Painting.
For nobility in the 18th century, having a portrait painted by a talented young woman was very fashionable. Kauffman’s credentials as an artist were increasingly recognised by academies across Europe, and it was felt that in order for a British Academy to establish any kind of reputation, foreign expertise was needed. So in 1768, Kauffman joined 22 male artists in signing a petition to King George III for the establishment of a “Royal Academy for Painting and Sculpture”.
Joining Kauffman among the founding members was the painter Mary Moser, who had had equal difficulties finding formal artistic training, and as a result had received most of hers from her father, George Michael Moser. George Moser was the first Keeper of the Royal Academy, in addition to being a founding Member himself, so we are probably right to question how much influence his role had on Mary’s invitation to become a founding Member at the RA, but there is no doubt that she was a gifted artist, talented from an early age.
Mary Moser gained her artistic reputation as a flower painter and in the 1790s was commissioned by Queen Charlotte to design a complex floral decorative scheme for Frogmore House in Windsor. Her career as an artist continued throughout her marriage to Hugh Lloyd in 1793, until 1802 when it was said that her eyesight had become too poor to paint.
Although she rarely attended the meetings at the Academy, in 1807 she became a regular attendee to the General Assembly meetings, hinting either that the turn of the 19th century had created safer foundations for women to participate alongside men, or that Moser’s seniority among the Members at the Academy now accredited her with a little more authority. This was a time when the Academy itself was verging on a state of civil war and the question of gender wasn’t at the top of its agenda.
As women, Kauffman and Moser were prohibited from attending committee meetings and dinners which were, and in many ways continue to be, the main arenas of discussion that determine the direction of the Academy. However, their voices within the establishment were both active and influential. A letter sent by Kauffman to the President and Council in 1775 protests against the admission of Nathaniel Hone’s painting The Conjuror to the Summer Exhibition.
The painting, which is said to ridicule Kauffman’s alleged relationship with Reynolds, depicts Kauffman as a child leaning across Reynolds’s knee in front of a backdrop of prints, one of which shows naked figures dancing around St Paul’s Cathedral. In particular, it was thought that the naked woman in black stockings depicted in this print (which was subsequently painted over in the finished picture) was what really offended Kauffman. In her letter to the President and Council she writes: