Women Painting Themselves: pt 7

Hello all, today’s entry is a little bit shorter than usual, as I don’t have as much to say about this artist/portrait…well, that was a lie. I thought I didn’t have a paragraph of opinions in me, but it turns out I did.

Angelica Kauffman 1740-1807

“Angelica Kauffman” by Angelica Kauffman ~1770-1775

As in many of the other self-portraits we’ve looked at, Angelica is showing herself with the tools of her trade. Angelica looks very sweet, almost delicate in this painting (as compared to Anna Dorothea Therbrusch) and while her gaze might not be as confrontational as some of the other artists’, she is making eye-contact with the viewer, and is also pointing to herself. This serves the double purpose of showing off her hand drawing skills (again, hands are hard and if you can do them well it’s impressive) as well as subtly reminding the viewer that she did this; she’s the artist.

Angelica Kauffman was a child prodigy* originally from Switzerland (and yet another artist who received her initial training from her father), and as a child traveled extensively with her family throughout Europe. She eventually settled in London and became one of the rock stars of the 18th century. It would be difficult to overstate the level of celebrity she achieved, especially in comparison to painters today. It was to the point that when she died her funeral was an Event, with the choreography based on the funeral of Raphael.

So ok, a major contributor to her success was that she was able to break into the History Painting market. That she did this as a woman was a very big deal. In Western Europe/America during Angelica’s time, out of all the types of painting you could do (still life, portrait, etc) history painting was considered the most important as well as the most technically challenging. So is anyone here surprised that female painters tended to be encouraged to stick to the lesser genres? No? No.

I’ve noticed while writing this series there is the idea of the rare** woman painter as this special snowflake who overcame crazy odds to succeed as an artist back in the day. It’s just flat-out false. For one thing, from what I can tell most of them had some, if not significant support from their families which implies to me a certain amount of societal acceptance for the idea of women painters. Most of the artists that I’ve been able to find significant information about were special, but special in that they were RIDICULOUSLY successful by any standard you care to use. I mean, most of them were getting paid by very rich people to paint things, and more than one were famous in their own time*** across multiple countries in the era before the telegraph had been invented. Think about that.

*One of her better known paintings is about her angst over choosing to pursue art over music. Even the tiniest details about her abilities make her seem intimidatingly impressive.

**I’m not saying that there was some sort of gender equality painting utopia that we’ve all forgotten about, but even limiting myself to women with verified self portraits, and the limits of my admittedly not amazing research skills, I’ve still come up with quite the list of names. Far more than I expected, especially once we hit the 19th century, and I’m someone who should’ve known better.

***The closer we get to now the easier it is to find out about artists who weren’t the rock stars of their day. This isn’t something I think is ever made clear when art history is being taught.


http://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/angelica-kauffman The National Museum of Women in the Arts has been a good resource for this project, although their collection doesn’t include everyone.
http://www.angelica-kauffman.com/en/vita/biographie/ Lots of information, very useful site if you’d like to know more about Angelica Kauffman.
http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/genres/history-painting.htm More information on History Painting.

Previous parts in this series:
part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

Related Articles


  1. Her self-portrait is very well-done, but I’m completely charmed by the self-portrait in your first footnote! It makes me wonder if I should try to personify my own personal conflicts as elegant ladies tugging on my arm.

Leave a Reply

Check Also
Back to top button