Monday, 5 September 2011

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Angelica Kauffmann

Miss Angel, by Angelica Goodden
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, by Gita May

Artists in the age of scandal

By Clare Colvin in The Independent
Friday, 13 January 2006

Born within 15 years of each other, Angelica Kauffman and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun shared many experiences. Both, as attractive young women artists of the late 18th century, were victims of slanderous rumours spread by jealous male counterparts. Both made early, disastrous marriages. Lacking a stable home life, they both travelled as independent women wherever they could find commissions. They were workaholics, conscious of being the sole breadwinner for their relatives. And both were subjected to criticism that their work was too charming and easy on the eye.

Angelica Goodden's Miss Angel is the more substantial bioigraphy and tackles the question of Angelica Kauffman's standing as a serious artist rather than simply a portrait painter and decorator. When Kauffman came to London in 1766 (she was born in Switzerland and had already achieved artistic success in Italy), the combination of her talent and rarity as a woman artist turned her into an instant celebrity. The whole world, it was said, had gone "Angelicamad".

Kauffman capitalised on the enthusiasm. She rose to new heights as a society artist when commissioned to paint Queen Charlotte's portrait. She met Dr Johnson and other members of London's intelligentsia, and mingled with the aristocracy. The leading painter of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds, fondly named her "Miss Angel", which helped fuel rumours about them.

But unlike Vigée Le Brun, she sought a wider clientele. She was one of the first to latch on to the potential of the Industrial Revolution. She joined with manufacturers to reproduce designs on teapots, snuff boxes, fans, commodes and other accompaniments to Georgian life susceptible to decoration. Her image of "Poor Maria" from Sterne's A Sentimental Journey became a sensation. As Goodden points out, not for nothing is Kauffman the German for businessman or shopkeeper.

Angelica Kauffman made life difficult for future biographers by burning her papers, so much of Goodden's material comes from the impression she made on others. She seems to have been universally liked, except by those jealous of her success. Boswell wrote briefly in his diary: "Mlle Kauffman: paintress, singer, modest, amiable. Quite in love...".

A number of people were. But in an aberration of judgment, she entered into a secret marriage with a confidence trickster. A self-styled Swedish count persuaded her to marry him without her father's knowledge, and then began laying claim to her fortune.

Angelica was eventually convinced of his duplicity and a divorce followed, on the grounds of bigamy and non-consummation. Her protective father, Johann Joseph, sole parent since the early death of her mother, discouraged any other suitors. Himself an artist, he encouraged her to devote herself entirely to painting, unhampered by domesticity. Eventually, she married a friend of his, Antonio Zucchi. It was a business arrangement and may have remained unconsummated, although when Zucchi died Angelica wrote to a friend that she was "suffering from the greatest grief".

But throughout her life she retained a virginal image. The mature Angelica was known for her acts of kindness to others, but her deepest commitment was to her work. Given the dearth of original written material, Goodden analyses Kauffman through many of her paintings. This can be irritating if the painting in question is not among the 13 illustrated in the book, and several of the portraits are only quarter-plate size.

The works themselves are scattered through European museums, with the history paintings at Saltram House in Devon. Time for an exhibition to answer the question Goodden poses at the end: Was she really worth the adulation?

From the colour plates in Gita May's Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, we can see that the lady loved painting her self-portrait. Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, criticised Vigée Le Brun for the narcissistically maternal way she portrayed herself with her daughter, Julie. Looking at the 1790 self-portrait of the serenely smiling Vigée Le Brun, there is not a trace of the emotional turmoil she had been through - fleeing for her life from France, her patroness Marie-Antoinette arrested, her friends scattered or imprisoned. In a way, it may show strength of character to retain this bright-eyed optimism in the face of ruination.

Vigée Le Brun's portraits of Ancien Régime beauties are evocative of Fragonard, but the later portraits during and after her 12-year exile have hints of neo-classicism in the flowing costumes, and a pre-Romantic mood in the storm clouds or sunsets. She found patrons in the courts of Europe, and became a confidante to Catherine the Great.

Her charm hid a fierce dedication to her art. Pregnant with her first and only child, she refused to leave the easel until labour pains overcame her, and a midwife was hastily sent for.

The publishers have been generous with illustrations here - 16 full-size colour plates and 18 black-and-white in the text - but the writing is not up to the standards set by today's biographers. Adjectives come in pairs - "exciting and vital"; anecdotes get repeated; and explanations for the American market grate.

Unfortunately, Goodden's more comprehensive biography of Vigée Le Brun, The Sweetness of Life, is out of print, with only a few copies for sale at a rarity price through Amazon. Perhaps Goodden's present publishers should consider a paperback edition alongside Miss Angel.

Miss Angel: the art and world of Angelica Kauffman by Angelica Goodden
By Min Wild
Sunday, 11 September 2005 in The Independent

On the staircase at Saltram House, a reverently preserved stately home of England, hangs a portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose own expansive brush painted the flower of later 18th-century society. At the opening of the Tate Britain Reynolds exhibition (still showing) much was made of his central role in the creation of a cult of celebrity and his capacity for self-advertisement. Yet the Saltram portrait of 1767 depicts a less authoritative and confident man, in whose face a subtly captured anxiety belies the Enlightenment poise of his pose and setting.

The artist was the first major internationally recognised woman painter, the Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman. A "Raphael among women", she was especially fêted in England, where she lived for 14 years and was appointed a founder member of the newly-formed Royal Academy. Agile self-publicists, she and Reynolds were good friends, if not - as gossip suggested - lovers, as Angelica Goodden points out in this responsible and scholarly survey of Kauffman's life and times. Reynolds' "Miss Angel" was an extraordinary figure: canny, talented and dogged, she was praised for her masculine energy by Herder and befriended by Goethe. Goodden explains the recipe for her international stature: adding one part ethereal genius to two parts shrewd businesswoman, Kauffman skilfully magicked away any signs of the latter.

Goodden illuminates Kauffman's psychologically penetrating, sometimes superb portraits, and, though very little documentary evidence of her life survives, has used a multitude of sources to produce not only an assessment of her significance but also an overview of the Enlightenment art world and its (mostly) aristocratic patrons. Along with Angelica, the reader is ushered into the presence of all those Enlightenment royals, radicals, eccentrics and grandees who vied for one of her portraits to set off the exuberant plasterwork of their reception rooms. Sometimes their company is delightful - we meet the Livonian Count whose servants spoke only in recitative, who "gave all his orders in musical form", and who made his visitors converse by way of vocal improvisations. The British abroad were not always so cultured: John Damer, whose aristocratic wife was painted by Kauffman, didn't bother on his Grand Tour with the paintings in the Uffizi, but "laid bets with his companion as to who could hop to the end of the gallery first".

It isn't vital, of course, for biographers to like those whose lives they anatomise - sometimes this can be a hindrance. On other occasions, though, a biography can suffer from an odd kind of mental indigestion, as this one does. Discussing Kauffman's (not very distinguished) work in the exalted genre of history painting, Goodden becomes alarmingly severe, like a schoolteacher disappointed in a promising pupil. She perhaps underestimates the extent to which Kauffman's restraint and propriety as a painter and as a person - indeed, a kind of superhuman purity of character - were crucial to her acceptance as a woman presenting her wares in the public world of barter and sale. Kauffman only slipped once: she contracted an ill-advised marriage with a bogus Count in London and, in terror for her reputation, hastily extricated herself.

This was the era of sensibility, where for both women and men the heart was in a complex dialogue with the rational demands of logic and the brain. Much was made of the "effeminacy" of some of Kauffman's faces and figures, and Goodden dwells on the gender implications of this. Women were barred from attending the life classes which would have enabled them to depict muscle and sinew with classical accuracy. This is painfully illustrated by the way that Zoffany's group portrait of the founder members of the Royal Academy sets apart the two female members. They are present only on the wall as muddy portraits, while the recognisably depicted men cluster around a life model.

Of the three categories available to the biographer of an artist - art, life and world - Goodden is not as expansive as she could be on the paintings, and can be tart, sometimes repetitive, and mildly exasperated with Angelica Kauffman, concluding that she may not truly have deserved the fame she won. One can learn a great deal, though, from this wide survey of the greed, prejudice and magnanimity which fashioned the 18th-century European world of art.

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (Marie Élisabeth Louise; 16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842) was a French painter, and is recognized as the most famous female painter of the 18th century. Her style is generally considered Rococo and shows interest in the subject of neoclassical painting. Vigée Le Brun cannot be considered a pure Neoclassist, however, in that she creates mostly portraits in Neoclassical dress rather than the History painting. In her choice of color and style while serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun is purely Rococo.

Born in Paris on 16 April 1755, Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée was the daughter of a portraitist and fan painter, Louis Vigée, from whom she received her first instruction. Her mother was a hairdresser. She was sent to live with relatives in Épernon until the age of 6 when she entered a convent where she remained for five years. Her father died when she was 12 years old following an infection from surgery to remove a fish bone lodged in his throat. In 1768, her mother married a wealthy jeweler, Jacques-Francois Le Sèvre and the family moved to the rue Saint-Honoré close to the Palais Royal. She was later patronised by the wealthy heiress Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon, wife of Philippe Égalité. During this period Louise Élisabeth benefited by the advice of Gabriel François Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Joseph Vernet, and other masters of the period.

By the time she was in her early teens, Louise Élisabeth was painting portraits professionally. After her studio was seized, for practising without a license, she applied to the Académie de Saint Luc, which unwittingly exhibited her works in their Salon. On 25 October 1783, she was made a member of the Académie.

Marie Antoinette
On 7 August 1775 she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer. (Her husband's great uncle was Charles Le Brun, first Director of the French Academy under Louis XIV.) Vigée Le Brun painted portraits of many of the nobility of the day and as her career blossomed, she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette. So pleased was the queen that during a period of six years, Vigée Le Brun would paint more than thirty portraits of the queen and her family, leading to her being commonly viewed as the official portraitist of Marie Antoinette. Whilst of benefit during the reign of the Bourbon royals, this label was to prove problematic later.

On 12 February 1780, Vigée Le Brun gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Julie Louise, whom she called "Julie".

In 1781 she and her husband toured Flanders and the Netherlands where seeing the works of the Flemish masters inspired her to try new techniques. There, she painted portraits of some of the nobility, including the Prince of Nassau.

On 31 May 1783, Vigée Le Brun was accepted as a member of France's Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. She submitted numerous portraits along with an allegorical history painting which she considered her morceau de réception—La Paix qui ramène l'Abondance (Peace Bringing Back Prosperity). The Academy did not place her work within an academic category of type of painting—history or portraiture.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard also was admitted on the same day. The admission of Vigée Le Brun was opposed on the grounds that her husband was an art dealer, but eventually they were overruled by an order from Louis XVI because Marie Antoinette put considerable pressure on her husband on behalf of her painter. The admission of more than one woman on the same day to the Académie encouraged comparisons among the works of the women instead of one woman contrasted with the existing members, who were men.

In 1789, she was succeeded as court painter to Marie Antoinette by Alexander Kucharsky.

French Revolution
After the arrest of the royal family during the French Revolution Vigée Le Brun fled France with her young daughter Julie. She lived and worked for some years in Italy, Austria, and Russia, where her experience in dealing with an aristocratic clientele was still useful. In Rome, her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca.

In Russia, she was received by the nobility and painted numerous aristocrats including the last king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski and members of the family of Catherine the Great. Although the French aesthetic was widely admired in Russia there remained some cultural differences in what was deemed acceptable. Catherine was not initially happy with Vigée Le Brun's portrait of her granddaughters, Elena and Alaxandra Pavlovna, due to the area of bare skin the short sleeved gowns revealed. In order to please the Empress, Vigée Le Brun added sleeves giving the work its characteristic look. This tactic seemed effective in pleasing Catherine as she agreed to sit herself for Vigée Le Brun (although Catherine died of a stroke before this work was due to begin).

While in Saint Petersburg, Vigée Le Brun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. Much to Vigée Le Brun's dismay, her daughter Julie married a Russian nobleman.

After a sustained campaign by her ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, Vigée Le Brun was finally able to return to France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I. In spite of being no longer labeled as émigrée, her relationship with the new regime was never totally harmonious, as might be expected given that she was a strong royalist and the former portraitist of Marie Antoinette.

Much in demand by the élite of Europe, she visited England at the beginning of the 19th century and painted the portrait of several British notables including Lord Byron. In 1807 she traveled to Switzerland and was made an honorary member of the Société pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva.

She published her memoirs in 1835 and 1837, which provide an interesting view of the training of artists at the end of the period dominated by royal academies. Her portrait of fellow neoclassical painter, Hubert Robert, is in Paris at Musée National du Louvre.

Still very active with her painting in her fifties, she purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during the war in 1814. She stayed in Paris until her death on 30 March 1842 when her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home.

Her tombstone epitaph states "Ici, enfin, je repose…" (Here, at last, I rest…).

Vigée Le Brun left a legacy of 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. In addition to private collections, her works may be found at major museums, such as Hermitage Museum, London's National Gallery, in Europe and the United States.

Angelica Kauffmann

Maria Anna Angelika/Angelica Katharina Kauffman (30 October 1741 – 5 November 1807) was a Swiss-Austrian Neoclassical painter. Kauffman (not Kauffmann) is the preferred spelling of her name; it is the form she herself used most in signing her correspondence, documents and paintings.

Early years
She was born at Chur in Graubünden, Switzerland, but grew up in Schwarzenberg in Vorarlberg/Austria where her family originated.

Her father, Joseph Johann Kauffman, was a relatively poor man but a skilled painter, who was often traveling for his work. It was he who taught his precocious daughter. Angelica rapidly acquired several languages from her mother, Cleophea Lutz, read incessantly and showed talent as a musician, but her greatest progress was in painting, and by her twelfth year she had become a notability, with bishops and nobles for her sitters.

In 1754 her father took her to Milan.

Later visits to Italy of long duration followed. In 1763 she visited Rome, returning again in 1764. From Rome she passed to Bologna and Venice, everywhere feted for her talents and charm. Writing from Rome in August 1764 to his friend Franke, Winckelmann refers to her popularity. (She was then painting his picture, a half-length; of which she also made an etching.) She spoke Italian as well as German, he says, and expressed herself with facility in French and English - one result of the last-named accomplishment being that she became a popular portraitist for British visitors to Rome. "She may be styled beautiful," he adds, "and in singing may vie with our best virtuosi."

Years in Britain
While at Venice, she was induced by Lady Wentworth, the wife of the British ambassador, to accompany her to London. One of her first works in London was a portrait of David Garrick, exhibited in the year of her arrival at "Mr Moreing's great room in Maiden Lane." The rank of Lady Wentworth opened society to her, and she was everywhere well received, the royal family especially showing her great favor. Her firmest friend, however, was Sir Joshua Reynolds. In his pocket-book her name as Miss Angelica or Miss Angel appears frequently; and in 1766 he painted her, a compliment which she returned by her Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Another instance of her intimacy with Reynolds is to be found in her variation of Guercino's Et in Arcadia ego, a subject which Reynolds repeated a few years later in his portrait of Mrs Bouverie and Mrs Crewe.

When, in about November 1767, she was entrapped into a clandestine marriage with an adventurer who passed for a Swedish count (the Count de Horn), Reynolds helped extricate her.

It was doubtless owing to Reynolds's good offices that she was among the signatories to the petition to the king for the establishment of the Royal Academy. In its first catalog of 1769 she appears with "R.A." after her name (an honor she shared with one other lady, Mary Moser); and she contributed the Interview of Hector and Andromache, and three other classical compositions.

Her friendship with Reynolds was criticized in 1775 by fellow Academician Nathaniel Hone in his satirical picture "The Conjurer". This attacked the fashion for Italianate Renaissance art, ridiculed Reynolds and included a nude caricature of Kauffman, later painted out by Hone. The work was rejected by the Royal Academy.

In 1773 she was appointed by the Academy with others to decorate St Paul's Cathedral; and it was she who, with Biagio Rebecca, painted the Academy's old lecture room at Somerset House.

Kauffman's strength was her work in history painting, the most elite and lucrative category in academic painting during the 18th century. Under the direction of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Academy made a strong effort to promote history painting to a native audience who were more interested in commissioning and buying portraits and landscapes.

Despite the popularity that Kauffman enjoyed in British society and her success as an artist, she was disappointed by the relative apathy that the British had towards history painting. Ultimately she left Britain for the continent, where history painting was better established, esteemed, and patronized.

It is possible that her popularity declined a little in consequence of her unfortunate marriage; but in 1781, after her first husband's death (she had been long separated from him), she married Antonio Zucchi (1728–1795), a Venetian artist then resident in Britain.

Later years in Rome
Kauffman's 1787 painting of Goethe, then 38 years oldShortly afterward she retired to Rome, where she befriended, among others, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who said she worked harder and accomplished more than any artist he knew; yet, always restive, she wanted to do more (Goethe's 'Italian Journey' 1786–1788) and lived for 25 years with much of her old prestige.

In 1782 she lost her father; and in 1795, her husband. She continued at intervals to contribute to the Royal Academy in London, her last exhibit being in 1797. After this she produced little, and in 1807 she died in Rome, being honored by a splendid funeral under the direction of Canova. The entire Academy of St Luke, with numerous ecclesiastics and virtuosi, followed her to her tomb in San Andrea delle Fratte, and, as at the burial of Raphael, two of her best pictures were carried in procession.

The works of Angelica Kauffman have retained their reputation. She had a gift of grace, and skill in composition.

By 1911, rooms decorated by her brush were still to be seen in various quarters. At Hampton Court was a portrait of the duchess of Brunswick; in the National Portrait Gallery, a self-portrait (NPG 430). There were other pictures by her at Paris, at Dresden, in the Hermitage at St Petersburg, and in the Alte Pinakothek at Munich. The Munich example was another portrait of herself; and there was a third in the Uffizi at Florence. A few of her works in private collections were exhibited among the Old Masters at Burlington House.

But she is perhaps best known by the numerous engravings from her designs by Schiavonetti, Francesco Bartolozzi and others. Those by Bartolozzi especially still found considerable favour with collectors.

Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), artist, patriot, and founder of a major American art dynasty, named several of his children after great European artists, including a daughter, Angelica Kauffman Peale.

Her life was written in 1810 by Giovanni de Rossi. It has also been used as the basis of a romance by Leon de Wailly (1838) and it prompted the novel contributed by Anne Isabella Thackeray to the Cornhill Magazine in 1875 entitled Miss Angel.

She should not be confused with painter Angelika Kaufmann, who was born in 1935 in Carinthia, Austria.

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