Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Self Portrait, c. 1770-75, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 61 cm.,
National Portrait Gallery, London

Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) was the epitome of an international 18th Century painter. She was born in Switzerland, died in Rome and worked in Florence, Bologna, Venice and, notably, in Britain. This Spring, she is the subject of a major exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, an institution of which she was a founding member and one that exhibited some of her best work.

Both artistic and musical from an early age, Kauffman was persuaded to become a painter after a priest warned her of the apparent seediness of the opera. After her mother’s death in 1757 (by which point she was already a successful painter in Switzerland), Angelica’s father relocated to Milan, a move that prompted frequent visits by the young artist to the Italian peninsula. Having been elected a member of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze in 1762, she would move to Rome the following year. This would prove a pivotal moment in her career as she was introduced to the British community of Grand Tourists in the city, many of whom were eager to have their portraits painted in the Eternal City.

A true European, she was fluent in German, Italian, French and English – her facility with languages surely helping her career grow wherever she worked on the continent. Above all, it was her British connections that would prove the most fruitful: when in Venice, Lady Wentworth, the wife of the British Ambassador, convinced Angelica that London would be the best place for her to further increase her fame. She was immediately taken into the heart of London’s artistic community, painting portraits of the actor David Garrick and her great friend and mentor, Joshua Reynolds, who was almost certainly instrumental in her election to the Royal Academy when it was founded in 1768, a few years after her arrival in England.

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1767, oil on canvas, 127 x 101 cm.,
National Trust, Saltram House

Kauffman exhibited at the R.A. Summer Exhibition every year from 1769 – 1782. At the start of the 1780s, Kauffman moved back to Rome with her Italian husband, the decorative painter Antonio Zucchi. She would live for another 25 years before dying in 1807.

It is important to recognise that Kauffman was not only enormously successful in her day, but was truly a trailblazing female artist – exceptional because she managed to have a successful and lucrative career as a fully-formed Academic painter. Like her contemporaries, Reynolds and Zoffany, she not only painted fashionable portraits for influential clients, but also executed history paintings of religious and mythological subjects. This rarefied genre of painting was regarded as the highest painting discipline by the R.A. and was therefore typically prescribed as the preserve of Academically trained male painters. Despite being an Academician, Kauffman was barred from R.A. life drawing (deemed impolite for women), as female artists were generally destined only to paint genre scenes, still lifes and, at a push, portraits. Undeterred (though perhaps slightly lacking in a full understanding of male anatomical depiction), Kauffman established herself as one of the preeminent history painters in mid- to late- 18th Century England, these pictures making up the bulk of her R.A. exhibited works. Although her characteristically feathery brushwork was always decorative and lyrical, she never shied away from esoteric classical subjects, nor obscure biblical sources.

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., The Judgement of Paris, c. 1781, oil on canvas, 80 x 100.9 cm.,
Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico

So renowned was she that, in 1778, she was commissioned by the Royal Academy to paint four ceiling roundels depicting allegorical ‘Elements of Art’: Invention, Composition, Design and Colour. These were set into the ceiling of the Academy’s Council Room at Somerset House and were transferred to Burlington House in the 19th Century where they can be seen today. Kauffman’s ‘Elements of Art’ interestingly used female figures to depict such muscular artistic notions as Design, or disegno.

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Design, 1778-80, oil on canvas, 126 x 148.5 cm.,
Royal Academy of Arts, London

Kauffman was more than willing to emulate this classical erudition in her portrait commissions. In her female portraits especially, she often painted subjects in Roman dress and posed them, like her RA roundels, as classical muses.

This is exactly the case in Kauffman’s 1772 portrait of Jemima Ord, currently for sale with Dickinson. In this important picture, Kauffman wraps her sitter in ambiguous classical dress and seats her next to a lyre. This costume and musical attribute likely mean that Jemima Ord is being depicted as Erato, the muse of lyric poetry. The waterfall behind is perhaps a reference to the Hippocrene spring on Mount Helicon, whose waters, when drunk, were said to inspire poetry.

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Portrait of Jemima Ord (d.1812), three-quarter length, in a white dress, seated playing a lyre, in a landscape, a waterfall beyond, c.1772, oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm.,
with Simon C. Dickinson Ltd., London

Kauffman was, therefore, possessed of all the facets that made a great artist of the 18th century. Her skill with the brush and social connections ensured commercial success. She was a well-travelled international artist, who drew inspiration from the different countries in which she worked. Her classical and biblical knowledge resulted in public commissions and widely exhibited history paintings, something no other female painter achieved in 18th century Britain.

The modern market for Angelica Kauffman

Unlike some female old masters, Angelica Kauffman was an acclaimed and commercially successful painter in her day. She commanded top prices from private clients and even had her works published as engravings well into the 19th Century. At no point has she slipped entirely from art historical memory, nor from commercial favour. As such, Kauffman has always been a desirable artist and the peaks and troughs in her prices have therefore been less pronounced over the decades.

The past ten years have seen a remarkable boom in prices achieved for works by female old masters. Whilst this has overwhelmingly been a good thing for the market, the clamour for collectors and museums to own works by woman artists has, in some cases, led to inflated prices for second tier works. This often has the reductive effect of making such pictures compare badly to those by their male counterparts.

The story with Kauffman is different. Whilst she inevitably commands slightly higher prices today (admittedly, largely down to the fact that she was a woman), buyers can take confidence in the fact that her work has always been in demand. This means that if one were to pay a top price for a Kauffman today, that figure is likely not to signify an artificial inflation driven by contemporary fervour, but rather a good price for an artist who has always been renowned. This chimes with Kauffman’s top prices fetched at auction. Below are five of her most expensive paintings, with two of them having been sold twenty years ago or more, long before the current interest in woman old masters began in earnest. It is also heartening to see that the more recent sales included below are real masterpieces and not over-hyped second tier works from her oeuvre. We also see a great range of different works, with a fully classical history painting, a classicising ‘historical’ portrait and fashionable group portraits.

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Cornelia, Mother of Gracchi, 1788, oil on canvas, 110 x 152 cm.,
sold Christie’s New York, 14 October 2021, lot 63, $1,110,000 (inc. premium)

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Portrait of three children, almost certainly Lady Georgiana Spencer, later Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Henrietta Spencer and George Viscount Althorp, c. late 1760s, oil on canvas, 113.6 x 144.8 cm., sold Sotheby’s New York, 30 January 2019, lot 52, $915,000 (inc. premium)

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Portrait of the Hon. Anne Seymour Damer as Ceres, 1766, oil on canvas, 124 x 99 cm., sold Sotheby’s London, 25 November 2004, lot 41, £453,000 (inc. premium)

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Portrait of Philip Tisdal with his wife and family, 1771, oil on canvas, 154 x 190 cm., sold Sotheby’s London, 12 June 2003, lot 8, £509,600 (inc. premium)

Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Group portrait of Lady Elizabeth Smith-Stanley, Countess of Derby (1753-1797), with her infant son Edward, later 13th Early of Derby (1775-1851), and her half-sister, Lady August Campbell (1760-1831) playing the harp, 1770s, oil on canvas, 127.3 x 101.6 cm.,
sold Christie’s London, 8 July 2021, lot 14, £562,500 (inc. premium)