Angelica Kauffman: ‘shrewd and entertaining’ exhibition

This exhibition at the Royal Academy could be seen as a long-overdue “homecoming”, said Chloë Ashby in The Art Newspaper. The Swiss-born artist Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) was one of 18th century Europe’s most in-demand painters, famed for her portraits, self-portraits and history paintings. As “savvy as she was talented”, she “had a knack for befriending the right people”, one of whom included Sir Joshua Reynolds: in 1768 he invited her to become one of the 34 founding members of the Royal Academy (along with the English painter Mary Moser, she was one of only two women accorded the honour). Time, however, was not kind to her reputation. In the 19th century, her neoclassical style fell out of fashion, and like many women artists, she was “sidelined from history”. This, the first exhibition at the Royal Academy devoted entirely to her work, brings together some 30 pictures, from epic history paintings to “grand portraits” of “illustrious sitters” to intimate self-portraits. It charts her rise from “relative outsider” to celebrated establishment artist.

It’s “refreshing” to see art of this era painted from a woman’s perspective, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph: women feature prominently in her history paintings. Kauffman is at her best when she demonstrates a “spark of eccentricity”: in her allegorical painting Design, for example, “a workmanlike woman, with sleeves seemingly rolled up, ferociously scrutinises an antique statue of a nude male torso while making a drawing of it”. Yet for the most part, her art “was so of its time that it fails to transcend it”. Almost every figure in Kauffman’s history paintings “has the appearance of a milksop, with a smooth, rosy-cheeked, childlike face”, and her portraits are mostly defined by the same “soft-focus formula”. Everything here has the air of “decorous playacting”. I left “underwhelmed, even bored, by so much civility”.

Kauffman’s paintings are frequently “soft to the point of saccharine”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. The style belies her “defiant” nature: witness, for instance, the “formidable” letter she wrote protesting the Royal Academy’s decision to display a satirical painting by a fellow artist that made scandalous suggestions about her friendship with the much older Reynolds: Kauffman demanded the institution remove the work, or she would take her own paintings out of the display. She won. Her best portraits of the great and the good are, though, shrewd and entertaining: the actor David Garrick, for instance, turns his “lively gaze” directly at us; her likeness of Reynolds himself, meanwhile, is “gentle, diaphanous, full of mutual affection”. Kauffman may not have been one of the greatest painters of her day, but in fairness, this “elegant and selective” exhibition does not pretend otherwise.

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Royal Academy, London W1 (020-7300 8090, Until 30 June.

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