The Learned Paintress: Angelica Kauffman’s “Self Portrait of the Painter Hesitating Between Painting and Music” by Claire Sandberg

Kauffmann, “Self-Portrait of the Painter Hesitating Between Painting and Music”

 The development of the historiated portrait allowed artist in the British Royal Academy to create self-portraits rich with allegories and classical influences that reflected the ideal image of the learned artist as described by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses on Art. Following in Reynolds’ example, British Academicienne Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) used allegories and classical mythology in her historiated self-portrait, Self-Portrait of the Artist Hesitating Between Music and Painting (1794) to portray herself as a learned artist. She did this by associating herself with classical muses and endowing herself with the authority and skills of the female allegories as well as re-gendering the popular myth of Hercules at the Crossroads to create an autobiographical history painting.

While scholars have focused on how Kauffman maintained a strict control of her image, they primarily look at the way Kauffman controlled her image to emphasize her fame and success. In my examination of Kauffman’s self-portrait, I address the way in which she controls her image to portray herself as a learned artist as defined by Sir Joshua Reynolds. While the depiction of her as a learned artist contributes to her image of success and fame, the intellectual fashioning of Kauffman has typically been overlooked.

Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait

Kauffman’s self-portrait as a learned artist stems from the newly established British art tradition of the historiated portrait. The historiated portrait grew in popularity in 18th century England as a result of the conflict between the desire to create history paintings for the Royal Academy and the British public’s desire for large scale portraits to display in their homes. While history paintings were the ideal genre for British artists, commissions for them were limited and artists began accepting commissions for portraits to support themselves. In Reynolds’ seventh Discourse, he concedes to the reality of the art market in London and describes a compromise that takes the form of the historiated portrait. For portraits of men, the dignity and morality of a history painting could be easily displayed through military uniforms and heroic masculine poses, but female sitters could not adopt these masculine attributes. Reynolds instead suggests dressing or disguising female sitters as figures from antiquity. Muses and allegories were a particularly rich subject choice as they were traditionally personified as women and masquerading as such allowed the female sitter to take on the attributes of the classical figure. Symbolic disguises became a popular way for artists to suggest social status or the accomplishments of a woman and gained popularity in the works of Reynolds in the 1760s and 1770s. It allowed the artist to create rich history paintings that aligned with the ideals of the Academy, while still pleasing their patrons desire for portraits. Drawing on Reynolds’ example, Angelica Kauffman utilized disguises and association with classical figures in her self-portraits as exemplified in Self-Portrait of the Artist Hesitating Between Painting and Music. This practice allowed her to work within the conventional Academic style, while also using the associations as a biographical statement. In Self-Portrait of the Artist Hesitating Between Painting and Music, Kauffman shifts from using disguises as muses or allegories to using the more masculine practice of association while still relying on Reynolds’ example. She depicts herself in a simple classical dress, Music seated to her left and Painting standing to her right. The muses hold their identifying symbols; Music has sheet music across her lap while Painting holds a palette and brushes in her hand. Kauffman herself bears no defining attributes; her companions on either side of her endow her with their own qualities. This painting moves beyond the traditional historiated portrait as it implements a narrative, transforming it into a history painting that includes a portrait. By producing a clear representation of herself in a history painting, Kauffman makes the connection between herself and the skills needed to produce successful history paintings. Success as a history painter required more than just the mechanical skill of an artist, it required an extensive background in classical literature and history. While Self-Portrait of the Artist Hesitating Between Painting and Music does display Kauffman’s skill and the fame she received throughout her career, it also casts her as the ideal learned artist of the British Academy.

In the series of Discourses given by Sir Joshua Reynolds to the British Royal Academy of Art, he continually returned to the theme of the learned artist as the highest form of artist. The mechanical practice of art, simply copying directly from life, was reserved for the craftsmen and Reynolds aimed to elevate painting to the level of liberal art alongside poetry. The objective of painting, he argued, is to address the mind in the same way poetry inspires deep thought and reflection. For artists to achieve this level of mastery and elevate their works to the level of poetry, the artist needed to be well-educated. In her self-portraits, Kauffman created the image of herself as this learned artist by following in the example set by Reynolds.

Kauffmann used Reynolds’ practice of disguises and association with muses for female subjects to emphasize her intellectualism and authority. Using muses and classical mythology was an easy way for Kauffman to display her learning because it allowed her to show she had studied classical literature and it offered her the ability to create the superior history paintings that Reynolds and the Academy lauded. In Artist Hesitating Between Painting and Music, Kauffman places herself between two muses that represent the two arts she had to choose between as a young woman. To her left, Music sits with an open book of music across her lap, while Painting stands actively with her arm outstretched towards Kauffman to offer her a palette and brushes while she points towards the temple of fame in the distance. Kauffman creates a clear polarization of the two arts, embodying not only the choice of painting over music, but her choice between the public sphere and the private sphere. Music sits within her home, the temple of Music, surrounded by the domestic warmth of the private feminine space. She shows traditional signs of feminine sensitivity; her expression is sad to say goodbye to Kauffman, but she passively accepts Kauffman’s departure. She has little demand for herself and instead expresses the modesty and unselfishness considered suitable for a woman. Music is contrasted by Painting, who stands against the open landscape away from the domestic setting. Her pose is energetic and powerful as she beckons Kauffman to follow. Painting embodies the masculine virtues of energy, activity, ambition, extrovertness, and dynamism. Placed between the two muses, Kauffman shows herself making the decisive choice to enter into the public masculine sphere.

Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy

Kauffman’s association with allegories and muses is only the first level of meaning in Artist Hesitating Between Painting and Music. Kauffman’s self-portrait quotes a well-known myth and popular history painting subject that viewers would easily recognize. The myth of Hercules at the Crossroads recounts a moment in the classical hero’s life in which he was visited by two allegorical figures, Vice and Virtue. The figures offer him a choice between a pleasant and simple life or a difficult but glorious life. The myth was a popular subject during the Renaissance and regained popularity amongst the 17th and 18th century painters, such as Nicolas Poussin and Kauffman’s acquaintance, Benjamin West. By adopting the theme for her self-portrait, Kauffman makes herself the embodiment of a classical legend and once again displays her knowledge for antiquity and classical literature. Years prior to Kauffman’s adoption of Hercules at the Crossroads, Joshua Reynolds used the theme for a portrait of the well-known British actor, David Garrick. In David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy (1761, fig. 5), Reynolds plays out the theme of Garrick’s public professional life as he tries to choose which career path he should follow. Due to Reynolds and Kauffman’s friendship and the similarities between the two paintings, David Garrick and Artist Hesitating Between Painting and Music are frequently compared. What sets the two paintings apart is the theme of an intellectual choice. Garrick is shown unable to resist the charms of Comedy/Vice, who playfully tugs on his clothes and coyishly gazes at the viewer, and he is torn between the two choices as he turns back to look at Tragedy. The depiction of Comedy/Vice conforms to the traditional presentations of the subject of Hercules at the Crossroads with the erotic nature of Vice that attempts to lure the hero away from Virtue. Garrick’s choice is influenced by his emotions and not rational though. In contrast, Kauffman’s depiction removes the sexual themes and focuses entirely on the intellectual choice she is making. She holds her hand out towards Music, in the place of Vice, but only to bid her farewell as she rationally and confidently chooses Painting. She removes the idea of female sensibility, controlled by emotions and the heart, to replace it with a positive depiction of female rationality and intelligence. Kauffman understands the importance of placing herself in the position of Hercules. She took on the male role because there was no iconographic way in which she can express her intelligence through femininity in a favorable light. In the same way Reynolds advocated for artists to disguise female sitters in classical costumes to depict their dignity and status, Kauffman self-fashions her life into the heroic myth of Hercules to claim the qualities attributed to the ancient male hero. 

Tom and Jerry at the Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Academy © The  British Library Board | the Jupital
Print showing the Exhibition of Pictures at the British Royal Academy of Art

Scholars’ focus on Kauffman’s cultivation of success and fame shines a light on one aspect of her self-fashioning, but it overlooks what made her so successful and highly esteemed by the British Royal Academy. While she was living in Rome, Kauffman maintained a strong connection with the Royal Academy. She was one of the founding members and continued to send works to the Salon until 1797. Her works, especially her self-portraits, strived to achieve the Academic goal of painting that was intellectual and equal to poetry. James Barry, who viewed her works in London, highly praised Kauffman. He remarked that her gender did not restrain her from achieving the highest level of academic art, but that “whoever produced such a picture, in whatever age or whatever country, it is great, it is noble, it is sublime.” Kauffman was incredibly successful because she kept careful control over her image. That image was not simply of a successful artist, but a learned paintress. When De Rossi published Kauffman’s biography in 1810, he stressed Kauffman’s rationality and deep reflection when it came to her work. He cast Kauffman as distinct from previous women artists and emphasized the masculine attributes of her work, specifically the intellectual qualities of invention, originality, and inspiration. His narrative of Kauffman’s life continued her own fashioning to depict her as a learned artist. De Rossi highlighted Kauffman’s love for learning and her education as a child, her ability to read and speak several languages, and her knowledge of a broad range of historical and literary sources. This theme of learning and a strong education as a child mirrors the expectations set by Reynolds in his Discourses on the development of the learned artist. Angelica Kauffman understood that to be successful as an artist in the Royal Academy, she had to live up to the standards set by Reynolds. Her self-portrait, Artist Hesitating Between Painting and Music, shows the culmination of her efforts to match and exceed Reynolds’ expectations as she neared the end of her career. 

Angelica Kauffman used the themes of the learned artist throughout many of her self-portraits, drawing on disguises and associations with muses and classical literature to create rich historiated portraits and history paintings that emphasized her life and education. Henry Fuseli, another acquaintance of Kauffman in London, argued that Kauffman painted herself in all her paintings, that all her heroines were just reflections of herself. In Self-Portrait of the Artist Hesitating Between Painting and Music, Kauffman took the use of disguises and associations to a new level by moving beyond the historiated portrait to craft an autobiographical history painting. She drew from her knowledge of mythology to cast herself as Hercules, torn between two difficult choices, but adopted the role of the genius artist described by Vasari to decisively choose Painting over Music despite all obstacles and objections by her family. Kauffman drew upon the guidelines set by her friend, Joshua Reynolds, to show herself as not only a successful painter, but the ideal learned paintress.


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