Portrait of the Artist as Model
THE artist whose self-portrait confronts us is Angelica Kauffmann. She enjoyed remarkable fame in her own time, and though not a truly great artist remains well represented in a number of galleries. Born in 1740, she was endowed with many talents, and was in herself both industrious and pleasing, but her work has been condemned by her censors as ``bright, insipid, and sentimental,'' a harsh judgment that does not give her her due. Along with one other woman, she was made a foundation member of the Royal Academy in London; over many decades she continued to paint the portraits of prominent people all over Europe; prints of her pictures were to be found everywhere, and assured her of popular acclaim. She painted, etched, engraved, and decorated - ceilings, wall panels, tables, even pianos, and fans were ornamented with the beautiful classical motives so fashionable in the 18th century by this quite astonishing Swiss; one wonders how she could ever have done so much, so well. Looking at her portrait, we find it hard to find in it testimony of such unflagging labor.
Her biographers maintain that she embodied the spirit of her age, and considering that that was the 18th century, one of the most brilliant and prolific periods the West has known, this is no small praise. All her achievements she earned herself - she was born of humble parents in a country district in Switzerland, and had none of the privileges of rank, wealth, and education that might have smoothed her path. Furthermore, being a woman, she was subject to the bias that hampered her sex, yet she did all this without rancor or ambition; she had the drive and single-minded discipline of the artist.
She was an appalled spectator of the French Revolution, and must have been at least aware of the pamphlets that appeared vindicating women's rights (such as Mary Wollstonecraft's), but it is doubtful that she ever read them. She was, presumably, too hard pressed with her own numerous assignments seriously to consider the causes of the world's upheaval; yet she was no lightweight, there was nothing frivolous about her.
Her proud father (who decorated churches in a small way) quickly realized that his daughter was a prodigy - it is related that when she was hardly more than an infant, on being given an ABC to learn she occupied herself first in copying the illuminations around the letters. When she was only 11 she received her first important commission: to paint the portrait of the Bishop of Como, who was apparently pleased with the result. The family moved about, living in several Italian cities and in the course of their travels coming to Rome, where as a young girl Angelica became the friend and pupil of Winckelmann. This great classical scholar and archaeologist taught her principles of Greek art, delighting in her ardor for learning and her interest in the history and myths he related to her, and which she at once began to illustrate, following his precepts.
Lady Wentworth, the wife of the English ambassador in the Eternal City, was so impressed with her talents, intelligence, and charm that she took her to London, confident that her gift in catching a likeness would at once grant her commissions to paint the aristocracy, and so it proved. This introduction proved a perfect entree for the young woman, who had already taught herself English (German, French, and Italian she had more easily picked up in the places she had lived), and who by observation had acquired lovely manners.
Angelica Kauffmann was so richly gifted that her singing voice was of operatic standard - she had indeed considered entering that world, but decided against such a step because of its moral disrepute - she was modest and correct, a faithful daughter of her church. Always a loyal friend, her many admirers included Reynolds, Romney, Garrick, Fuseli, Goethe, and a host of others, including the nobility and even royalty (George III was on the throne when she came to England), and her own career was in its way as successful as any of these eminent men.
Without name or fortune, however, in those circles in which she moved, marriage was difficult, and she did not take this step till fairly late in life (for that period), and then disastrously. In 1767 she gave her hand to an impostor who pretended to be a Swedish count, and who was already married. The real nobleman turned up and accused Angelica of having connived in this fraud; she was obliged to have the quasi-marriage dissolved in Rome. The scandal and heartbreak this occasioned were extremely painful to her, but in 1781 she became the wife of Antonio Zucchi, a Venetian, with whom she seems to have had a good understanding. They returned to Italy together, and there she lived the last chapter of her life, always active and admired.
As an artist it is generally conceded that Kauffmann's coloring was delightful but her drawing weak, her perspective faulty because of poor instruction. Her portraits of women are better than those of men, as she excelled in painting graceful and beautiful people but not at showing strength. Yet to have done what she did, and have survived, she must have been made of steel - one hardly glimpses this in her self-portrait. The louring sky behind her and her firm posture before it may perhaps be intended to hint at the storms she had survived.
During her long career Kauffmann made a number of self-portraits, two of which are at the Uffizi; she was not satisfied with the first, which was presented to the gallery in a fortuitous manner, and subsequently gave it another, the one shown here.
A self-portrait, frequently undertaken to save the artist the expense of a model, may flatter its subject (as Van Dyke's did, when he painted himself as ten years younger than he was), but this is not so usual as when the painter must please a paying sitter. It seems unlikely that Kauffmann had any such motive - this portrait is pleasing and pretty but gives us little in the way of self-analysis. It is bland, though painted in 1787 after she had gone through many vicissitudes. Perhaps it does have a certain rueful look about it, and it is a respectable piece of work, worthy of its niche, reminding us of a life well spent, productive, and courageous - yet she was not giving anything of herself away. It would be unfair to compare her to the great exponent of this art, Rembrandt, whose long line of self-portraits unsparingly trace his development, his intensity, his compassion. People are what they are, painters paint as they can and must. Angelica's essential modesty, her talent, her classical attitude, were perhaps all she aspired to suggest here, and the result is both agreeable and evocative.