top of page

Breaking into the Boys’ Club

Angelica Kauffman at the Royal Academy

by Margie MacKinnon

Restoration Conversations magazine

Issue 05 Spring/Summer 2024

‘Angelica Kauffman’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1 March – 30 June 2024) ph. David Parry © Royal Academy of Arts, London

A recent article in The Guardian newspaper declared that one of the oldest members’ clubs in the world, the venerable Garrick Club, founded in London in 1831, remains a bastion of male elitism almost 200 years after it was established. The club’s membership list is comprised of the great and the good from the legal establishment, the upper reaches of politics and the art world.

Women are admitted to the club only as guests and, while they may be permitted to eat in the dining room, they must choose their meals from a menu without prices and are not allowed to pay for anything whatsoever. Some members claim that work is never discussed at the Garrick, so there is no question of excluding women from important networking opportunities afforded the ‘gentlemen’. Other, more forthright, members concede that business is often conducted there – but that it is ‘good form’ not to be blatant about it.

The Garrick was named in honour of the actor David Garrick, whose acting and management at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in the previous century, had by the 1830s come to represent a golden age of British drama. In 1764, Garrick’s portrait was painted in Naples by the 23-year-old Angelica Kauffman, currently the subject of a monographic exhibition at London’s Royal Academy. As one of its two female founding members (the other being Mary Moser), Kauffman saved the Royal Academy from starting out as an exclusively male institution – although she and Moser would remain the only female Academicians until Laura Knight’s admission in 1936.  And Kauffman would have to wait 250 years to have a solo show at the Academy she helped to found.

The show’s co-curator, Annette Wickham, makes the point that because this is Kauffman’s first show at the RA, “we intentionally made it a chronological overview of her whole career, rather than a more thematic presentation, because we felt that she still needed a bit of an introduction to a UK audience.”

‘Angelica Kauffman’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1 March – 30 June 2024) ph. David Parry © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Surprisingly, there are three portraits of men among Kauffman’s earliest works. Surprising because it would have been unusual at the time for men to sit for a portrait by a female artist and almost unseemly for a woman, and quite a young woman at that, to be in such close contact with a male subject. Wickham notes that it is likely that Kauffman would have been chaperoned for these sittings, most probably by her father, the Austrian portrait and fresco painter Johann Joseph Kauffman. “These early portraits are of friends and acquaintances – the interesting, famous people with whom she was crossing paths in Italy. There is an informality to them. With Garrick, there is this idea of a kind of familiarity and ease that is quite striking. He is just turning around in his chair as though he wants to chat to her.” Kauffman’s 1764 portrait of German art historian Johann Winckelmann is similarly intimate. “She’s depicted Winckelmann in his house coat,” says Wickham, “as though he has just sat down to study a great thought that he needs to record, and it feels as if Kauffman is present in that moment. She has stripped away all the theatricality of a typical Grand Tour portrait. There is nothing in the background and the only indication of his great standing as a classical scholar is the little bas relief, underneath his book, of the Three Graces.”

The third male portrait is of Joshua Reynolds, the RA’s first President and Kauffman’s great supporter. The two quickly developed a friendship after Kauffman’s arrival in London, where her reputation as a precociously talented painter and multi-linguist (she spoke at least four languages) preceded her. Wickham comments that “there is a lovely familiarity in the Reynolds portrait. She dresses him up in a sort of Van Dyck costume, referencing the ‘great swagger portraits’ that Reynolds was looking to produce himself. She surrounds him with books, some by his friend Dr Johnson, as well as publications that he himself contributed to.” A bust of Michelangelo in the background appears to be whispering in his ear, offering inspiration. Wickham continues, “This work is a step in between her early portraits and the slightly more formal ones that she painted for aristocratic patrons. Reynolds returned the favour by painting Kauffman’s portrait, and then, when it came to his 1780 RA self-portrait in his academic robes, he used the bust of Michelangelo, and the same table full of books. So, there is an artistic conversation between the two that goes back and forth. It is not just Kauffman looking to Reynolds – he looks to her work and incorporates aspects of it into his own.”

‘Angelica Kauffman’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1 March – 30 June 2024) ph. David Parry © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Like Reynolds, Kauffman was an advocate of history painting which, for Kauffman, provided the opportunity to feature female protagonists – Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Antony, Penelope at Her Loom and The Death of Alcestis are among the works exhibited. Some reviewers have suggested that Kauffman’s heroines are too demure, that they “represent female agency, dignity under pressure, without challenging male power”, as the Financial Times’ critic put it. Wickham acknowledges that “it seems people want her to be more rebellious and more revolutionary. Kauffman has been described as a ‘stealth revolutionary’ by the artist Ellen Harvey. I love the subtleties at work in her paintings. It is fascinating to see how she subverts expectations, but often just slightly. The women are very much at the centre of the canvases and their stories are being highlighted in a way they would not be otherwise.” 

In The Death of Alcestis, Kauffman gives the ancient Greek heroine a heroic deathbed scene which dominates the composition. In order to live beyond the day he was fated to die, her husband Admetus has been told he must find someone to die in his stead. Exemplifying the virtue of unwavering loyalty, his wife is the only person to volunteer. According to Wickham, “in other depictions of this story Alcestis is often already dead or has her eyes closed. Here, the couple look into each other’s eyes, which draws more attention to Alcestis’s choice to sacrifice herself. When you unpack it, there’s more subtlety and a bit of subversion of the norms.” (Spoiler alert: Alcestis is eventually rescued from the underworld by Heracles.)

Kauffman portrays Cleopatra as a woman in mourning, not as the seductive femme fatale so often seen through the male gaze. Her Penelope, endlessly waiting for the return of Odysseus, is the quintessential long-suffering wife, and the expression of the little dog at her feet who shares her gloominess injects some humour into the picture. “Kauffman had to be quite careful about how these women were portrayed,” explains Wickham. “She had already been the subject of unwanted gossip [in part because of her close relationship with Reynolds] and making works that might be seen as titillating would have been problematic for her. Also, it is important to look at the context that she was working in. Her representations were consistent with the Neoclassical style that was prevalent at the time.” Restraint and clarity of form were prized above all. 

The focus on women in Kauffman’s history paintings brings to mind Artemisia Gentileschi, another painter whose works feature strong female protagonists.  It is interesting to speculate on whether Kauffman came across or even copied some of Artemisia’s works during her time in Italy. While there is no evidence that this was the case, Wickham notes that “the fact that she foregrounded women so much and had this interesting take on how they were presented does suggest that Kauffman could have been familiar with [the celebrated Baroque artist]. She knew a lot of other creative women at the time, and she would have been interested in precedents.”  Kauffman, in turn, would have an important influence on the female artists who followed her, providing ample proof that women could in fact have a career as an artist. Maria Hadfield Cosway, whose career Kauffman encouraged, was seen as her natural successor and she might have achieved greater success in the art world if her husband, the Academician Richard Cosway, had permitted her to paint professionally.  Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, who met Kauffman in Rome, recalled in her memoirs that seeing the latter’s self-portrait at the Uffizi in Florence gave her courage in pursuing her own artistic ambitions.

Kauffman was represented in the Uffizi’s famed self-portrait gallery by two pictures. The first, acquired by the gallery in 1772, is one of two early paintings in which Kauffman appears in a traditional costume of the Bregenz Forest, her father’s Austrian homeland. Painted in 1757, Kauffman later considered that the work was “unworthy of herself”. The Uffizi then accepted a second portrait which she completed in 1787. In the intervening years, Kauffman had become much more conscious of controlling her own image. The second portrait presents the artist as a ‘vestal virgin’, a timeless, symbolic image as both creator and muse. And not just any muse. With the chalk between her fingers and the board on her lap, Kauffman is personifying disegno, the ‘father’ of all the visual arts. A bold move that was rewarded when her portrait was chosen to hang next to that of Michelangelo himself at the Uffizi.

Beneath Kauffman’s carefully cultivated and rather benign exterior was a shrewd businesswoman and a skilled networker. Following her marriage to Venetian painter Antonio Zucchi in 1781, Kauffman returned to Italy, where her portraits were much in demand by the aristocracy as well as Grand Tourists. In Rome she presided over a salon that was frequented by artists, actors, opera singers and writers, most notably Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet, novelist and scientist. She received commissions from her female friends and fellow creatives who she painted with the same allegorical approach used in portraying herself, including the Portraits of Domenica Morghen and Maddalena Volpato as Muses of Tragedy and Comedy and Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, as Muse of Comedy

‘Angelica Kauffman’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (1 March – 30 June 2024) ph. David Parry © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Kauffman’s prodigious output was documented in a book kept by Zucchi, recording her works and income. Unfortunately, what is missing from this archive is Kauffman’s own voice. Two years before her death in 1807, she burnt her letters and other documents. Having been the subject of scurrilous gossip, particularly during her time in London, she had reason to worry about how her private thoughts might be construed by biographers. She had been the object of ridicule in a painting by Irish artist Nathaniel Hone. Known as The Conjurer, the work depicts an old man, with a girl at his knee, ‘conjuring’ a picture from an array of old prints. This was a dig at Reynolds – known for his liberal recycling of motifs from the Old Masters – but the girl’s pose also mimics Kauffman’s painting Hope, painted in 1765 and published as a print in England in 1775.  When the Academy proposed to include The Conjurer in their 1775 Annual Exhibition, Kauffman threatened to remove her paintings and quit the Academy. A ballot of the Council followed, with the Academicians voting overwhelmingly in favour of Kauffman – an indication of her standing within the organisation as a highly regarded artist, and confirmation that she was not merely a token woman member. 

Kauffman’s status was further cemented with her commission to paint four roundels, depicting the ‘Elements of Art’, as part of the decorative scheme of the Royal Academicians’ Council Room in purpose-built apartments at Somerset House, the Academy’s first home (see feature on p. XX). Now installed in the Front Hall of Burlington House, Kauffman’s allegorical figures representing Design, Composition, Colour and Invention greet today’s visitors as they enter the Royal Academy.  Welcome to the club.


Supported by principal sponsor Christian Levett and Musee FAMM, ‘Angelica Kauffman’ at London’s Royal Academy is on until 30 June 2024. 

As this article was going to print, The Guardian reported that women could finally become members of the Garrick Club within months, 193 years after it was founded, following a new interpretation of the club’s rules which clarifies that there is no specific prohibition on women joining.


bottom of page