Although rumours of dalliance followed Kauffman from Italy – the painter Nathaniel Dance was one of many who fell in love with her – she was careful not to appear “indelicate”. To her wealthy clientele she seemed brilliantly unthreatening: pretty but not beautiful, modest and easy to talk to and (genuinely) kind. She was also canny. Although she came to London in June 1766 as the protegée of Lady Wentworth, wife of the British ambassador to Venice, she had already engineered an even more effective introduction in advance, sending her portrait of the actor David Garrick, painted in Naples, to the exhibition of the Free Society of Artists the previous year. Garrick’s face was already famous, but unlike other artists, Kauffman painted him not as an actor in a role, but in a plain brown overcoat, gazing quizzically over the back of a chair (Portrait of the Actor David Garrick, 1764). She borrowed the pose from the convivial portraits of Frans Hals, but used it cleverly, so that it seems both a barrier to flirtation and a defence for the sitter against her penetrating gaze – Garrick’s face is relaxed but his hands grip the edge of the chair. The effect is warm, amusing, alive. As if to acknowledge who had the upper hand, Garrick sent a verse to the St James’s Chronicle:
While thus you paint with Ease and Grace,
And Spirit all your own;
Take, if you please, my Mind and Face,
But let my Heart alone.
It was a time of new interest in the “self”, in the gap between the roles people play and their inner lives, between face and heart. Alert to this, Kauffman explored her own life choice in self-portraits. She was born in Switzerland in 1741, the daughter of a Swiss mother, Cleofea, and an Austrian artist, Johann Joseph Kauffman. At 12, she painted Self Portrait with a Sheet of Music (1753), with round face and
brown eyes, blue dress and pink ribbon, looking serious and determined. Would she concentrate on the ‘feminine’ art of music – her voice was sweet, and her talent evident – or follow her artist father? She chose the latter, and following her mother’s death when she was 13, her father trained her. After working in his native Bregenz Forest in Austria (in several self-portraits Angelica wears the dress of this alpine region, suggesting a – fabricated – rural innocence), they travelled round Italy, where she copied Old Masters in the galleries and produced work that won her acceptance in the prestigious academies of Bologna, Florence and Rome.
Looking back in later life, she staged that early choice again in Self-Portrait of the Artist Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (1794). Adapting the classical format of the Choice of Hercules, between the paths of Vice and Virtue, she casts a tender look towards Music but gestures towards the palette offered by Art, who looks far more dynamic in her blue dress and swirling red sash, gesturing to the mountains, to sublimity and the temple on the heights. But Kauffman’s painting, she implies, as she holds Music’s hand, will not be a rivalrous but a sisterly art. In her self-portraits she often took a pose commonly used by amateur women painters, holding her paintbrush or sketchbook, gazing calmly at the viewer. Women were among her chief patrons, and sisterhood was important to her. In one of her grandest, most Gainsborough-like canvases, Portrait of the Siblings Spencer (c.1774), she portrays two real sisters, Henrietta and Georgiana (about to become Duchess of Devonshire), sitting together with clasped hands, while their brother Viscount Althorp stands pensively to one side – in engravings he was often cut out altogether.