Biography, Criticism, Art History: Angelica Kauffman in Context
WENDY WASSYNG ROWORTH
Angelica Kauffman ( 1741-1807) is one of the most well known women artists of the eighteenth century and one of the few women artists of any period who gained critical and financial success in her own lifetime. A Founding Member of the Royal Academy in England, she received numerous commissions from royal heads of state in Europe and was a friend to such eminent contemporaries as Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, the antiquarian Johann Winckelmann, and the Italian artists Antonio Canova and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These facts are testimony to a high level of success, but she is particularly noteworthy, for unlike most women painters, who specialized in still life or portraiture, she aspired to be a history painter. History painting was considered the highest, most noble form of the art of painting, the visual equivalent to epic poetry. As formulated in Renaissance art theory and developed in the academies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, history painting required knowledge of literature and history, as well as facility with anatomy, composition, perspective, and fresco painting, and it was based on education and training not always available to women. Nevertheless, we are told that early in her life Kauffman decided to pursue a career in history painting in spite of her natural talent for portraiture. Such a choice was not often an option for women artists, and a question that this chapter will address is why Kauffman's career appears to have differed from those of other women artists. How is it that she was able to establish and maintain a career in the field of history painting and to obtain important commissions in spite of prejudiced expectations of women artists?
Most scholarly studies of eighteenth-century art have tended to diminish Kauffman's role as a painter of importance in spite of her documented financial