Day 14 – Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting

Day 14 – Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1794, Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire.

Originally posted on 1 April 2020

Two weeks of #pictureoftheday already! Thank you so much for all your ‘likes’, comments, queries, requests, and ‘shares’ – yes! Especially for the ‘shares’, keep on doing that, I’d be so happy if even more people could get to read these ramblings. And if there’s anything you’d like me to cover, please ask!

That’s what I’m doing today – a request – for art by a woman. It shouldn’t be a request, I know. I should have done it already, and will do more in the future! And yes, I know I could have jumped straight in with Artemisia, but by now everyone knows about her (that won’t stop me in future, though), and it is really sad that the opening of the National Gallery’s exhibition has been delayed: let’s just hope it doesn’t get cancelled altogether. Another exhibition I’m really looking forward to is Angelica Kauffman at the Royal Academy. As it’s due to open on 27 June, I suppose there is still some hope it could open on time.

Kauffman was a wonderful artist, as I hope today’s painting shows, and a very clever woman – which I hope you will understand by the time I’ve finished. She was born in Chur, in Switzerland, which a Swiss friend of mine once spent a very long time trying to persuade me not to visit. It wasn’t that bad, to be honest, but I probably wouldn’t rush back, although I want to go at some point as their museum was being refurbished, and I missed the Kauffmans. Kauffmen? Not that there should be that many there – the family moved away when she was one, and then again ten years later, by which time they were in Italy. She was trained by her father, and assisted him from the age of 12, and she moved to London in 1764, by which time she was 23. She rapidly became a hugely successful portraitist, and in 1768 was one of only two women to be founder members of the Royal Academy. But she was not just a painter of pretty faces – she spoke German, Italian, French and English, and the subject matter of today’s painting shows she was well educated in other ways too.

It shows her, as the title tells us, ‘hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting’. She is central, in white, with her body facing towards us. Not only is she making sure we do not miss her by taking up as much of the painting as she can, with her shoulders full width across the surface, her gestures take up just a little bit more space, but the white makes her figure ring out from the darker background and the rich colours of the allegorical characters. It also gives her a higher moral status – white makes her look virtuous – while unifying the composition by matching the white of Music’s undershirt and the off-white of the score on her lap and the headdress of Painting. In the same way Music and Painting are balanced on either side of Ms Kauffman as they are wearing red. 

Music is relaxed, and seated, looking towards the artist with a winning gaze, which is returned. She pulls the artist’s right hand – the hand Kauffman paints with – towards her. Meanwhile, Painting looks concerned, almost anxious. She points towards a temple atop a steep hill in the top right-hand corner of the painting. If you look back to Music, you will realise that the diagonal of the hill, and the pointing arm, actually starts in the score, undulating across Music’s knees and echoed by Kauffman’s right arm. 

The artist’s left hand points towards the palette, which has four dabs of paint on it – there’s not a lot there, as if work has only just begun. We see mustard yellow, ochre, red, and – a dark burgundy? The mustard yellow and red seem to be the colours of Painting’s clothes – the darker versions for the shadows maybe – with the hint that Painting herself has only just begun: there is more work still to do. Painting is not finished. What is missing from the palette, then, is the blue of her dress. Is it fanciful to imagine that she wears this blue robe in the same way that Mary does in so much Christian art – because it was the most expensive pigment and became associated with the most important person in the painting? What is certainly true is that Painting is wearing red, yellow and blue – the three primary colours – everything that painting is made of. But is she the most important? Or, of the two arts, is she more important than Music? We know the choice Kauffman would make, as we know her as an artist. She knows it too, and so, I think, does Music. Why else would she clasp that right hand so tightly, while Kauffman gestures to the palette with a look of compassionate regret on her face? Music is being rejected.

A lovely idea, and it’s cleverer than that. It is a direct reference to classical mythology, and particularly to a subject called ‘Hercules at the Crossroads’: the second picture shows Annibale Carracci’s painting of the subject from 1596.

Xenophon of Athens, writing some time in the 4th C BC, tells us that, as a young man, Hercules was faced with a choice between Virtue and Vice – should he take the hard, upward road, a life of toil and responsibility which would eventually lead to glory, or should he opt for an easy life of pleasure and enjoyment (i.e. going to the theatre and listening to music in a see-through skirt, by the look of it). Shakespeare was clearly aware of this parable, and, changing the context, gives the following words to Ophelia, after her brother Laertes has told her to be virtuous:

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads…

The parable was well known in 18th Century England. Kauffman’s great friend was Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy (was her admission a rare case of Jobs for the Girls?), and he had adapted it in 1760-61 for his portrait showing ‘David Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy’.

Reynolds, Joshua; David Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy; Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum;

For Garrick, the implication is that Tragedy is hard, but leads to glory, whereas comedy is easy (well, look at her), and fun. This was painted a few years before Kauffman arrived in London, but she may well have seen it – after all, the first of her portraits to be exhibited in London was of Garrick (picture 4). She’s playing with an idea created by Reynolds here, with the sitter peering over the back of a chair – many years before Christine Keeler.

Having said that, her self-portrait is not drawn directly from Reynolds. Look at Painting’s hand pointing up to the Temple of Art, and compare it with Virtue’s left hand in the Carracci – it’s far more like that. ‘Hercules at the Crossroads’ comes from the Farnese Collection in Rome, but it was moved to Parma in 1662, so even though Kauffman moved to Rome in 1782, 12 years before painting her self-portrait, she probably hadn’t seen the Carracci first hand. Given that Virtue and Painting are on opposite sides of their respective images, I wonder if she had taken the idea from a print, where the gesture would have been reversed? This does not imply that she lacked invention – quoting from the work of others was a way of signalling that you knew about their art, acknowledged it, and, if you did it well, ‘owned’ it. You were part of that world. As Picasso is supposed to have said, ‘Good artists copy. Great artists steal’.Wherever she got that gesture, she is saying one thing, and saying it rather clearly at that. As far as she is concerned music comes easily to her, and, much as she likes it, it’s a case of ‘I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s me…’ So Music is deserted in favour of Painting. Painting is hard, but painting is rewarding, and painting will win her a place in the Temple of Art. A little bit of false modesty perhaps, but being an artist was never easy, and even harder – especially hard – if you were a woman. She’s got to fight for everything she can get. Women were denied an artistic training because it was thought they didn’t have the necessary intellect, let alone the necessary education. It really helped having a father who was an artist, but even with that training she still goes all out to say, ‘Not only can I do this, but I do know the Classics, and I do know about European art’. She deserves her place – let’s hope we get to see that exhibition!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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