Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 2, 2007
Angela Rosenthal Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2006. 352 pp.; 101 color ills.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300103336)

In 1775 an artist named Nathaniel Hone submitted a painting called The Pictorial Conjuror, Displaying the Whole Art of Optical Deception (1775) to an upcoming exhibition at the British Royal Academy. The painting depicted in its top left corner an image of the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman frolicking naked with other naked artists, among them her friend Joshua Reynolds, who is shown lewdly jabbing his oversized, trumpet-shaped hearing aid in the direction of Kauffman’s parted legs. Hone’s painting was understood by contemporaries to be an attack on Reynolds, the president of the Academy, a mockery of Reynolds’s rumored love affair with Kauffman, and an attempt to humiliate Kauffman herself by depicting her as a sexually domineering virago, wearing only knee-high black boots and brandishing a sword.

But as Angela Rosenthal emphasizes in her gorgeously illustrated and well-researched book, Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility, Kauffman fought back—and triumphed. As one of only two founding female members of the Academy, Kauffman wrote a letter to its all-male board of directors demanding that Hone’s painting be removed from the exhibition. In her letter she politely but firmly reminded her colleagues of the “Respect to the sex which it is their glory to support,” and instructed them to withdraw her own paintings from the exhibition if they did not accede to her wishes. Kauffman won the battle, even if she could not stop Hone from displaying the Conjuror that summer in a rented room on St. Martin’s Lane, where it attracted scores of curious visitors and scandalmongers.

This was not the first time that Kauffman’s image had shown up on the margins of a painting by a male colleague. A few years before, she made an appearance of sorts in Johann Zoffany’s Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1771–72), a sympathetic group portrait of male Academy members who are depicted gazing at a nude model in their life-drawing class. Since female academicians were excluded from this class, Zoffany represented Kauffman and the Academy’s other founding female member, Mary Moser, not as flesh-and-blood participants but as patchy, nearly unrecognizable portraits on the wall at right.

Zoffany’s painting serves as our introduction to Kauffman in Linda Nochlin’s classic 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and in Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock’s Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1981). These two texts helped set the parameters of inquiry for a generation of feminist scholars who were actively engaged in exposing obstacles against women’s artistic achievement and, as Nochlin puts it, “probing some of the limitations of the discipline of art history itself.” Rosenthal employs these tactics in her book, situating Kauffman’s life and career within a broader cultural investigation of the prevailing assumptions and contradictions of eighteenth-century society, especially with respect to its creative women. Yet in choosing to focus on how Kauffman thrived within these constraints, Rosenthal belongs to a new generation of scholars interested in understanding how women artists and patrons could attain a measure of success without necessarily challenging, or seeming to challenge, its patriarchal strictures.

Rosenthal’s monograph restores Kauffman’s own work to center stage. Her project is not simply one of “historical recovery,” for as the author notes, “unlike some other female artists, [Kauffman] never fully lost her position within the art-historical canon” (2). Generally speaking, Kauffman’s story is not one of isolation or exclusion, but rather of strong support, widespread influence, and international renown. One need only glance at her voluminous, multilingual correspondence with the leading cultural figures of eighteenth-century Europe—Goethe, Johann Caspar Lavater, and Izabella Czartoryska among them—to get a sense of the professionally rewarding and breathlessly glamorous life that Kauffman led. Zoffany’s painting notwithstanding, Angelica Kauffman was nobody’s wallflower.

Rosenthal asks “how a female painter could be so successful in the public pursuit of art precisely at a time when women were increasingly associated with and constrained by developing notions of the private, domestic sphere” (3). She then explores how Kauffman turned these expectations and restrictions to her advantage: for example, by capitalizing on her culture’s belief in the “civilizing” capacities of women, as expressed in the writings of William Alexander and David Hume, or by providing a pictorial counterpart to the literary cult of sensibility. Rosenthal wants us to appreciate Kauffman’s significant role in reshaping eighteenth-century European society’s attitudes toward creativity, selfhood, and gender identity.

Rosenthal significantly advances the current scholarship on Kauffman by offering new approaches to analyzing the artist’s relationship with her patrons, with other artists, and even with herself—the last of these as evidenced in the numerous and protean self-portraits Kauffman painted throughout her career. The author makes perhaps her strongest contribution in chapter 1, where she examines Kauffman’s series of history paintings based on Homer’s Odyssey. As the first scholar to interpret these more than a dozen scenes as a group, Rosenthal elucidates their differences from the prevailing conventions of Neoclassical history painting. She contends that images like Penelope Weeping Over the Bow of Ulysses (ca. 1778) foreground female protagonists and focus on scenes in which narrative progression is stalled in favor of what the author, following Julia Kristeva, refers to as “monumental time,” as well as a “dreamlike narrative mode” that depicts “a female subjectivity” (36, 38). Rosenthal also shows how this alternative mode found an appreciative audience among Kauffman’s female spectators.

Many scholars have pointed to Kauffman’s status as a history painter—the most aspirational of Academic genres—as important evidence of her artistic ambitions. Others have regarded her emphasis on women as subjects either as a concerted effort to provide strong female role models or as a means of camouflaging her shortcomings in representing the nude male body. But Rosenthal argues that Kauffman is sufficiently ambitious and confident of her own talent to seek to undermine the dominant conventions of the history genre itself, and to provide her audiences with a different means of experiencing history and its representations.

Rosenthal’s next two chapters explore Kauffman’s “intersubjective” exchange with male artists and sitters. She examines how successful female portraitists like Kauffman and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun mitigated cultural anxieties about the idea of a woman artist gazing intimately at a man while painting his portrait, or what Samuel Johnson indelicately called “staring in men’s faces” (46). For her part, Kauffman fashioned herself as an enlightened Muse, one whose “feminine” gaze was less threatening than civilizing. Still, Rosenthal maintains that the products of this erotic exchange between artist and sitter bear its traces, notably in Kauffman’s portrait of David Garrick (1764), in which the actor appears to be guardedly gripping the back of his wooden chair so that “the consciousness of [Garrick’s] objectification by the female artist appears to be a formative and constitutive part of the image” (65). One can take this line of thinking too far, but Rosenthal’s visual analysis of the Garrick painting is persuasive, and so is her interpretation of an amusing portrait of Samuel Johnson (ca. 1783) attributed to Frances Reynolds (Joshua’s sister), in which the good doctor’s nose is thrust defensively in a book.

In chapter 3, the author compares Kauffman’s and Joshua Reynolds’s portraits of each other, claiming them as “conceptual pendants” and professing to show how they “[engage] in a witty visual dialogue on art, artist’s myths, and gender” (97). Ultimately, whether these works should be seen as pendants, conceptual or otherwise, remains dubious; nonetheless, making stimulating visual comparisons between works of art is what we as art historians do. Unfortunately, Rosenthal spends more time analyzing Kauffman’s portrait of Reynolds (1767) than she does analyzing Reynolds’s portrait of Kauffman. She also neglects to consider the crucial fact that, since the portrait by Reynolds has been lost, the basis for her comparison is Kauffman’s own copy after Reynolds’ portrait of her, a replica that Kauffman painted several years later, in 1794.

What does it mean to represent yourself, as faithfully as possible, as another sees you? One wishes that Rosenthal had engaged this question, or further developed her own intriguing suggestions about eighteenth-century concepts of wit, imitation, and emulation, especially as they relate to the issue of gender. If, as Rosenthal informs us, women artists in this period were understood to lack the capacity for rational thought yet were believed to possess a “heightened mimetic ability” (47), then how might an artist’s gender complicate the following statement, taken from Joshua Reynolds’s 1774 Presidential Discourse to the Academy on imitation: “Invention is one of the great marks of genius; but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think” (87)?

Rosenthal then shifts her attention to Kauffman’s female subjects and patrons. In chapter 4 she examines the painter’s series of depictions of female sitters in Turkish costume, contending that, when viewed together, they create a “space of creative exchange that rhetorically insists on the absence of the male gaze” (12). Among Rosenthal’s many acute insights is the notion that Kauffman used these portraits to evoke a different kind of pleasure than that conditioned by “normative harem fantasies” (141). The chapter’s theoretical underpinnings, however, could be better supported by a more detailed examination of individual images (Kauffman’s use of color, for example, merits further consideration) as well as a more thoroughgoing description of the patrons involved. This lacuna is thrown into relief in chapter 5, which discusses Kauffman’s “creative sisterhood” (159) of female patrons and her allegorical portraits of women artists.

In chapter 6, Rosenthal argues that Kauffman’s tendency to “soften” the bodies and faces of her male figures was due neither to a deficiency in draftsmanship nor to the artist’s biological sex. Instead, she believes Kauffman’s aesthetic responded to “culturally informed ideals” that enabled “a flexible notion of gender identification” (191–92). Rosenthal is especially persuasive when she investigates a group of bust-length portraits of male sitters who, playing on the title of a popular eighteenth-century novel, might be called “Men of Feeling.” Here the author lives up to the promise of her book’s subtitle by providing stimulating answers to the vexing question of what sensibility looks like.

Rosenthal’s final chapter analyzes the creation of Kauffman’s own identity through her self-portraits, and it is here that Kauffman comes alive for the reader, revealing through her art contradictory ambitions, desires, and anxieties about her image. This chapter might have preceded the others since, until now, the representation of Kauffman has curiously paled in comparison to that of other recurring figures like Vigée-Lebrun. Especially enjoyable is Rosenthal’s recounting of attempts by Kauffman, one of the most cosmopolitan women of her day, to fashion herself as a woman of “seemingly natural, rural simplicity” (261), in the manner of Samuel Richardson’s fictional Pamela or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, by repeatedly painting herself in the rustic costume of her father’s alpine birthplace.

One appreciates Rosenthal’s ambition to get us past the all-too familiar format of the conventional artist’s monograph, with its inexorable biographic March of Time. But the author’s thematic structuring is not entirely successful, and at times her book’s chapters read more as discrete articles than as an integrated whole. This may be because much of Rosenthal’s material has been published elsewhere, including her own German-language study Angelika Kauffmann: Bildnismalerei im 18. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Reimer, 1996). Moreover, the book’s language seems at times to obfuscate, and this, I fear, may narrow its appeal to a specialized audience. For instance, when mentioning the rumored liaison between Kauffman and Joshua Reynolds, Rosenthal writes, “For in foraging for such pseudoscandalous morsels, art historians have often neglected to take into account the psychosocial structuring of the relations between the two artists” (116). I think that is a cumbersome way of saying that our focus on the artists’ lives has hindered our ability to consider their art. But these are minor reservations.

In Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility Rosenthal has made an important contribution to the scholarship of an artist who has only in recent decades had her reputation justly restored. Rosenthal has rendered Kauffman’s life and work as complex and contradictory as the times in which she lived. By making Kauffman’s oeuvre even “richer and stranger” than we once had thought, Rosenthal fulfills a criteria to which all good feminist writing should aspire, as the art historian Anne Wagner recently observed in a paper given at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Feminist Future” conference (January 26–27, 2007). This book should inspire a reconsideration not only of other eighteenth-century women artists but also the larger cultural and aesthetic concerns that Rosenthal has so compelling addressed in her study, not least of which are the themes of gender and allegory, imitation, and the representation of history.

Meredith Martin
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University