Neither Kauffman nor Moser were admitted to the Council (the committee responsible for overseeing the Royal Academy) or to the Academy’s life drawing classes. They could play no role in the governance or direction of the Academy. In fact women were not invited to the Academy’s annual dinner until 1967. Nevertheless, the evidence of the archive suggests that Kauffman’s concerns were handled respectfully. When she wanted a painting removed on grounds of it being a scurrilous attack on her virtue, the RA obliged. The painting in question, Nathaniel Hone’s The Conjuror, was accepted for the Summer Exhibition in 1775. It was said to ridicule Kauffman’s alleged relationship with Joshua Reynolds PRA as it depicted 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. Kauffman sent a letter to the President and Council in protest – and the painting was subsequently removed on the grounds that it was offensive to the Royal Academy’s female members.
In 1780, Kauffman was commissioned to produce four oval allegories for the ceiling of the Academy’s Council Room, representing Invention, Composition, Design (above) and Colour. She exhibited 79 works between 1769 and 1797, while Moser showed 36 between 1769 and 1802. A letter sent from Joseph Bonomi to Benjamin West PRA containing an account of Kauffman’s funeral in Rome was read aloud with great pomp at a meeting of the General Assembly in December 1807 and transcribed in full in the minutes. These two artists were nothing if not high profile.
They were not, however, alone on their platform. Scour the RA’s index of exhibitors and you’ll find a fair scatter of women designated ‘artist’. Eliza Cook, a ‘miniature painter’ listed at several London addresses, showed seven works between 1777 and 1786; Mary Bertrand, ‘painter’, exhibited 10 items between 1772 and 1800. Among the honorary exhibitors there are more works ‘by a young lady’. Mary Benwell, another ‘miniature painter’, showed 20 paintings before marrying, then showed 18 works as Mrs Code.
None of which suggests anything approaching equality of the sexes among the Membership. In 1777 for instance, by my count of the exhibition catalogues, of 190 exhibitors 15 were women (8 per cent) and of 364 paintings 27 were by women (7 per cent). Yet for all their minority status it is still striking that the female artists are there, and seem to be making a professional living, supported to a degree by the RA.
It is worth remembering that there were no equivalent institutional roles and platforms accessible to women in the fields of law, medicine, science, politics, local government, the universities, the Navy or the Army. The 18th century was the great era of associations, but women participated in only a tiny minority. They were excluded from the Linnean Society, the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society, the first female fellows being elected in 1904, 1921 and 1945 respectively. The only professional field in which women were seen to have made a public mark was in literature and letters. But the prominence of female novelists, translators, philosophers and polemicists in the late 18th century was founded on commercial success or nurtured by influential, informal networks, and owed little to institutions. So, by comparison, the fraternity of artists was open.
Amanda Vickery (@Amanda_Vickery) is a writer, presenter and Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London