Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Angelica Kauffman - Neoclassicism's Female Hero

Angelica Kauffman, Zeuxis Selecting Models for his Painting of Helen of Troy, 1778
(Brown University Library, Providence, Rhode Island)

"By the ideal, I mean that which one sees only with the imagination, and not with the eyes; thus an ideal in painting depends upon selection of the most beautiful things in nature purified of every imperfection."
- Anton Raphael Mengs

Meng's words ring true of the accepted notion in 18th century that the idealism of Classical art was due to the Greek's search for perfection in nature. Since the Creator's true ideal was dispersed into nature and did not exist as a perfect whole in any one thing, it had to be compiled together by the artist.  It is possible to interpret Angelica Kauffman's painting Zeuxis Selecting Models for his Painting of Helen of Troy as a depiction of this notion.  According to the Roman author Pliny, the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis could not find a woman beautiful enough to portray as Helen of Troy, the archetype of the feminine beauty, so he picked the best features of five virgins to compose the most ideal image of beauty.  In this painting, the male artist is in the process of selecting the most perfect feature of the models; we even see an instrument on the floor by his foot that would be used to measure.  The one feature that sets this interpretation apart is the fifth model to the right of the artist who seems to be standing before the canvas with a brush in her hand.  She has taken the position of the artist/creator and instead of being one of the passive models who are being objectified, she is actively creating art.  Given the gender of the artist, this could be read as Kauffman's commentary on her identity as an artist.  

The Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman was a child prodigy; she was very gifted in art, music and could speak a number of languages.  She was trained by her father, brought to Rome and encouraged to study Classical sculptures and the work of the Renaissance masters.  When she moved to London she befriended Reynolds and impressed her contemporaries so much that she was invited as a founding member to the Royal Academy.  She aspired to be a history painter since this was the top echelon of all the genre's of painting.  Figures were an inherent part of history paintings but female artists had no knowledge of the human anatomy, since they were not allowed to work from a live model.  Kauffman had to rely on her studies from sculptures for her figures.  There were a lot of rumors circulating about Kauffman and she was maligned in the writings of some satirists.  But she still seems to have taken control of her life and career and become a favorite of the aristocracy.   She had moved from the position of objectified female to  the creator/artist. 

The English were not so enthusiastic about history painting as their French counterparts, portraiture was what they demanded.  Along with painting the portraits of "who was who" of her day, Kauffman also painted mythological scenes.  Although the subject of this painting was Neoclassical, the style was still more Rococo.  Instead of the rigid outlines and stoics figures of Neoclassicism, Kauffman used sfumato, her figures blending with the background.  Her diversity as an artist can be better understood when comparing this painting with Cornelia Pointing to Her Children as her Treasures from 1785.

Angelica Kauffman, Cornelia Pointing to her Children as her Treasures, 1785
(Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia)
This painting depicting exemplum virtutis (example of virtue) from Roman history is much closer to Neoclassicism.  Cornelia was a matron known for her virtue, modesty and honor. Here she is being visited by another female who is displaying all her worldly goods, looking askance at Cornelia to see her treasures.  Cornelia points to her sons who have come back from school as her treasures, displaying maternal virtue.  She also holds her daughter's hand but there is a bit of ambiguity when it comes to interpreting this figure.   For one thing, Cornelia does not include her in her treasures causing some to speculate boys were more important than girls.  The little girl seems to be quite taken with the jewelry of the other matron, confirming the stereotypical gender role.   

Stylistically, the Neoclassical elements are present in the figures standing on a shallow, horizontal plane as if on a procession, the wall and the column in the back forming a stark background, the clean outlines  and perspective as well as the subject of female virtue from Roman history.

All the ideals of the scholars and artists of mid 18th century can be seen in Angelica Kauffman's Cornelia.  Her elevated style of painting is in the grand manner as Reynolds was calling for, the morally exemplary subject matter is from ancient Rome, her figures idealized and outlined  as prescribed by Winckelmann and Mengs, thus the artist has seen with her imagination and selected all that is beautiful in nature.  This extraordinary artist who lived in and abided by the norms of a male dominated society that would deny her the right to learn something vital to her profession, still found a way to depict scenes from her unique perspective and is counted as one of the precursors of her time.

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