This small-scale oil painting depicts a woman in classical costume seated on a chair with her left elbow resting on a plinth on which a large column stands. Her hands are placed together in front of her, and hold a scroll and a writing implement. To her left is an ornate table with gold legs resembling those of a lion. On the table is a statue of the Roman goddess Minerva and a book.
The painting entered the Tate collection in 1967 as a self-portrait of Angelica Kauffmann, and was deemed to have been executed when she retired to Rome in the 1790s. However, in the 1970s this attribution was questioned and an earlier date placing it in the period she was working in Britain (1766¿–81) was adopted along with the more general title it now holds. Since then several attempts have been made to identify the sitter. Prominent late eighteenth-century female intellectuals such as the historian Catherine Macaulay (1731–1791) and the writer Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800) have been suggested, prompted undoubtedly by the inclusion of the book, scroll, writing implement and statue of Minerva, who was associated with poetry and wisdom. However, the adoption of classical dress and use of classical statues was relatively commonplace for portraits at this time and could have featured in the depiction of any aspiring or would-be intellectual.
Swiss by birth and Italian by training, Kauffmann arrived in England in 1766 to resounding social and artistic success. The small-scale classical genre works for which she was best known combined serious poetic and historical subject matter with a characteristic lightness of touch and were entirely in tune with the fashionable neoclassical style then being promoted in London. Kauffmann also courted clients with ‘classicised’ portraits such as this, and executed decorative work for numerous architectural schemes. In recognition of her professional standing, Kauffmann became one of only two female founder members of the Royal Academy in 1768, only a few years prior to completing this painting.
The depiction of a female sitter with the accoutrements of learning speaks to developments in women’s education in the second half of the eighteenth century. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of this was the founding of the celebrated ‘Bluestocking Society’ by Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Vesey in the 1750s; an informal organisation of predominantly female artists, writers and scholars who gathered together to discuss literature. Kauffmann herself was pictured with several Bluestockings in a group portrait by Richard Samuel, The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain 1778 (National Portrait Gallery, London), which celebrates the country’s artistic and intellectual women.
Angela Rosenthal, Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility, New Haven and London 2006, p.168.
Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz, Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings, London 2008.