Angelica Kauffman

Portrait of a Lady

c.1775

On display at Tate Britain

Artist
Angelica Kauffman 1741–1807
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Frame: 910 x 770 x 70 mm
support: 792 x 635 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Mrs M. Bernard 1967
Reference
T00928

Summary

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.

Further reading
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.

Ruth Kenny
September 2013

Display caption

The unknown woman in this portrait is seated in classical robes by a statue of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. The book upon the table and the writing materials in her hand suggest that she is a writer. Angelica Kauffmann’s interest in classical portraiture and history painting was nurtured during her time in Italy during the 1760s. Kauffmann, who was Swiss by birth, settled in England in 1766, remaining there until 1781, when she departed once more for Italy. In England Kauffmann specialised in decorative history painting and small scale portraits of female subjects, such as the one shown here.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

Angelica Kauffmann 1741–1807

T00928 self portrait

Not inscribed.
Canvas, 30 x 25 (76 x 63.5).
Presented by Mrs M Bernard 1967.
Coll: Mrs M Bernard.
Exh: Angelika Kauffmann und ihre Zeitgenossen, Vorarlberger Landesmuseum, Bregenz, and Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna, July 1968–January 1969.

Probably painted towards the end of the artist’s life.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1967–1968, London 1968.

Tate Etc.

Angelica Kauffmann's Portrait of a Lady

In celebration of the reopening of Tate Britain, Tate Etc. invited a selection of artists from around the world to ...