Day 48 – Colour and Design

Angelica Kauffman, Colour and Design, 1778-80, Royal Academy, London.

We’re back with the rainbow, again, after yesterday – but seen from a different point of view today. It is now a week since the Royal Academy officially announced that they would be cancelling their exhibition of the works of Angelica Kauffman, which, of all the shows that have been closed, is the one that has upset me the most. With Artemisia Gentileschi, there is still the vague hope that it might open late, and I am lucky enough to be fairly familiar with her work already. Not so with Angelica Kauffman, whose works I have rarely seen. Unfortunately, given the upheaval to the RA’s schedule, and the need to fit as much in as possible, and given the fact that many of the paintings simply cannot travel (they all have to be chaperoned, and it’s really the chaperones who can’t travel), there will be no time to collect them all together before they have to be sent back. And that’s if the UK and other, lending, countries, come out of lockdown soon. 

Still, the works are still out there in the world, and the exhibitions may yet be rescheduled – we’ll just have to wait another three years, I suppose. That is the average time it takes to programme and organize an exhibition – if one is being optimistic. But it does give me a good excuse to look at more of Kauffman’s work here, having looked at a self portrait a few weeks ago (Picture Of The Day 14). I’ve chosen a work which is in the RA’s permanent collection, and since their refurbishment a year or so ago, is daily available to be seen for free – or rather, will be, when we come out of lockdown. They own it, because it was painted for them. It was one of four works commissioned from Kauffman to decorate the Council Room of the first home of the RA, Somerset House. It shared the space with several other paintings, including five by Benjamin West. Like Kauffman he was not a native Briton, having been born in North America (not yet the ‘United States’) in 1738, and like her, he was a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768. He would become the second president of the Academy, following on from Joshua Reynolds, in 1792. No worries about ‘outsiders’ back then – I don’t think the RA is now, for that matter. As you may remember (POTD 14), she was Swiss. It is interesting to note that she was paid £100 for her four paintings, whereas he was paid £125 for his five – they were paid the same amount per painting – there was no gender discrimination, it would seem.

Kauffman’s four paintings show the ‘Elements of Art’ as described by Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses on Art. These were first delivered as lectures – at the Royal Academy, of course – and then published in 1788. It’s not that she was toadying to the boss. They were good friends, for one thing. In any case, she would have been commissioned to paint these very subjects, and she would also have been told the size and shape to paint them in, as they had to fit into the paneling of the ceiling. As a group they represent Colour, Design, Invention andComposition, but I am only going to look at the first two of these.

Kauffman, Angelica; Colour; Colouring; Painting; Credit line: (c) (c) Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer credit: John Hammond /

Some early references to the first call it Colouring – which is a clue that these words are Reynolds’ English versions of the Italian terms disegno and colorito – or ‘drawing’ and ‘colouring’. One of the traditional distinctions between Florentine and Venetian painting during the Renaissance was that they focussed on disegno and colorito respectively – the Florentines defining forms by their outlines, and Venetians by areas of colour. This is, roughly speaking, true, even if it is a vast simplification. Nevertheless, it makes more sense of what we see in Kauffman’s two images. 

Rather than using the rainbow as a symbol of hope, as we have seen previously (POTD 37 & 47) here is used as a source of colourThe personification is shown with her paintbrush resting on the rainbow, which then begs the question: is she painting the rainbow, or extracting colour from it? I think you are free to read it either way. Clearly, it makes no sense practically, as a rainbow does not exist, it is an effect of light, but metaphorically an artist is free to draw on all the colours of the rainbow. This metaphor might be the more logical interpretation, therefore, as the palette which she holds in her left hand has just one small smear of yellowish paint – she certainly doesn’t have all the materials necessary to paint a rainbow. In Italian, both colore and colorito mean ‘colour’. The latter can also mean ‘complexion’, while the former is used for ‘paint’. The word vernice does exist for ‘paint’ or ‘varnish’, but when describing paintings only ‘colore’ is used. Both words are masculine, and yet Kauffman paints Colour as female. OK, she wasn’t Italian – but then she wasn’t English, either. In German, the word is ‘Farbe’, which is feminine. More importantly, of course, so was Angelica Kauffman. Indeed, all four of her personifications in this series are female. This is a statement of intent, as much as anything. It has often been suggested that all four are disguised self portraits – or, at least, that she is using herself as a model. This is very unlikely. For one thing, all four have different hair colouring (easy to achieve, of course), but, for another, they are different ages. Not only that, but, as a woman in the public eye, she had to be wary of her reputation. She would not show herself in the advanced state of deshabille that Colour enjoys.

The rainbow is not the only symbol she uses to express the idea of colour. The figure herself is wearing red, yellow and a small amount of a very subdued blue – the three primaries – just as ‘Painting’ does, if more intensely, in her self portrait (POTD 14). There is also a small group of flowers growing at the bottom right – generic flowers, the Ecologist tells me, not specific ones – chosen, presumably, because flowers grow in all the colours of the rainbow. There is also a creature I have not seen elsewhere in art, even though Vasari does mention it in a lost painting by Uccello. The chameleon is famed for changing its colour according to its environment. Artists too are chameleons, Kauffman says, or rather, their paintings are, as the paintings taken on the exact colours of their subjects. I love the fact that she has painted a chameleon. As I say, you don’t see them very often in paintings – and it does look rather surprised to be there! 

Kauffman, Angelica; Design; Credit line: (c) (c) Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer credit: John Hammond /

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that Design is just a little bit cleverer. Of any of the four paintings, this is the one that looks most like Kauffman’s acknowledged self portraits (compare it with POTD 14, for example), and I feel sure she would have been happy to show herself studiously at work. Since Alberti wrote On Painting in 1435, it had been standard artistic practice to start your training by drawing from sculptures. His reasons were quite clear: ‘It would please me more to have you copy a mediocre sculpture than an excellent painting… from sculpture you learn to imitate it and how to recognize and draw the lights’. Not only that, but Angelica has chosen to draw the sculpture of choice for any budding draftsman, the so-called Torso Belvedere. Known in renaissance Italy from the 1430s, it was long believed to be an original Greek sculpture dating to the 1st Century BC. It is signed, “Apollonios, son of Nestor, Athenian”and gets its name from its present location, the Palazzo Belvedere in the Vatican. However, it is now thought to be a copy from the 1st Century BC or AD of an earlier work – possibly 2nd Century BC. Regardless of its origins, it is classical, muscular, and incomplete, it leaves much to the imagination and spawned numerous drawings and nearly as many suggestions for how it should be reconstructed. You could argue that most of Michelangelo’s later career was spent suggesting reconstructions – the figure of Christ from the Last Judgement being just one example.

So, sitting and drawing from the Torso Belvedere, Kauffman puts herself at the centre of artistic tradition. But also, she acknowledges the art of sculpture, whilst in the process of celebrating drawing. And for that matter, she is celebrating architecture as well, given that there are two classical, fluted columns forming the backdrop. Subtly she is asserting that drawing is essential for painting (the one we are looking at), sculpture (represented by the torso) and architecture (the columns) – thus including all of the visual arts in one image. I can’t help thinking that the Academy was getting real value for money here.

The columns frame her, and the solid, upright structure of the one on the right also acts as a counterpoint to the contorted forms of the torso. But then, she is hardly less contorted herself. Like the torso, one of her knees is lower than the other, the implication for the torso being that one foot is stretched out in front, while the other is tucked in behind – just like hers.  Likewise, one shoulder is brought forward, with the other twisted back. Is she, perhaps, reconstructing the torso with her own body? The height of the shoulders is perhaps not right, but it can’t be far off! Life is imitating art, she says – or rather, for Kauffman, life is art. It’s a densely packed painting.

If drawing from sculpture was the first stage for a budding artist, what would they move on to? Well, after drawing from sculptures you would draw from life, and this is where the gender bias would kick in for Angelica. It was inappropriate for a woman to look at a naked man, so she would not have been able to attend life-drawing classes. As a result, she would not be able to paint grand narrative works (or at least that was the theory – see POTD 16) which were, at that time, considered to be the main aim of art – even though that wasn’t what the English wanted, much to Reynolds’ regret. 

Her exclusion is illustrated rather brilliantly in Zoffany’s group portrait, The Academicians of the Royal Academy, completed in 1772, just six years before Kauffman got the commission to paint the Four Elements of Art. It shows all of the founder members of the four-year-old institution gathered together at a life drawing class. Zoffany takes as his model Raphael’s School of Athens – which shows all of the Philosophers of classical antiquity – and updates it. One model is posed for drawing, another is getting disrobed – even though no one is actually drawing – and Zoffany, palette in hand, sits to paint all this in the bottom left hand corner. They are all there. Just above Zoffany, standing in a heroic, if somewhat flashy pose, his straight right leg almost emerging from Zoffany’s palette, is none other than Benjamin West, who would become the second president. Joshua Reynolds, the first, who was famously deaf – and liked to flaunt the fact, perhaps because he created such wonderful ‘speaking likenesses’ – is further to the right, holding his ear trumpet, dressed in sober black, directly in front of a marble relief. They are all there – except for two. The two women who were founder members, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, couldn’t possibly have been there, it would have been improper – so Zoffany includes them as paintings hanging on the wall on the right. Kauffman is on the left and Moser on the right. Moral propriety meant that these two talented women were returned to the passive realm as subjects of art rather than occupying the active realm as makers. At least she got paid at the same rate as West for these two wonderful paintings.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

7 thoughts on “Day 48 – Colour and Design

  1. I am loving ALL your posts and can’t imagine how you fit so much information into each day. I think you must be having fun setting yourself challenges like using all those on-the- face- of- it unrelatable words as in the Salisbury Cathedral piece – congratulations! At last I know what antidisestablishmentarianism means. Keep them coming please!


    1. Thank you, Victoria! There is always so much to chose from, it’s great to have a challenge to help me decide what to talk about. I’m also happy to write about anything that the readers are interested in.


  2. My favourite element of Zoffany’s “Academicians” is the inclusion of the Chinese visitor Tan-Che-Qua or Chitqua.

    After Kauffman and Moser, no woman was elected as a full member of the RA for over 100 years, until Laura Knight in 1936!


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