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Portrait of the artist as an old woman

The Angelica Kaufmann exhibition may have been put on hold but, says Piers Plowright, we now have her ‘autobiography’

03 September, 2020 — By Piers Plowright

Angelica Kaufmann’s self-portrait

YOU couldn’t make it up: a Swiss-born child prodigy who could have been a famous musician or painter and chose the latter.

A protégée of Sir Joshua Reynolds and one of two women to found London’s Royal Academy, friend of Goethe, Canova, and Lady Hamilton, pupil of Piranesi, and the most famous female portrait and history painter in Europe, Angelica Kaufmann lived to a ripe old age, dying in her favourite city, Rome, in 1807.

She was still famous – people doffed their caps to her as her carriage rumbled through the Eternal City – but much troubled by “that Devil” Bonaparte and the threat the new century seemed to offer to Italy and to European stability.

Wonderfully rich material and north London-based novelist Miranda Miller has made a swashbuckling drama out of it in what she calls “a fictionalised autobiography”.

The Angelica Kaufmann who tells this story is a comparatively old woman – in her 60s – living in the Roman house she loves and once shared with her much-loved and missed second husband, the artist Antonio Zucchi.

She is looking back at her life, her struggles with misogyny and jealousy, and the colourful cast of characters who’ve thronged her studios and her salons: geniuses, rogues, rivals, beauties, forgers, revolutionaries, cardinals, royalty, and spongers.

Miranda Miller

Her first husband, a handsome but bogus Swedish count, is a good example of the last category, but almost all Angelica’s friends and foes are a ripe mix of virtue and vice.

The great Goethe, for example, comes over as a cynical and unprincipled womaniser – Angelica is spellbound by him but knows she can’t trust him an inch.

The sometimes jovial Sir Joshua, with his rich Devonshire accent, could be a difficult and fussy patron, reeking of drink and snuff, but wanting Angelica’s portrait of him to show a god-like artist in close communion with Michelangelo.

As for the beautiful Emma Hamilton – apart from her raw-red hands, that is – Angelica admires her candour and straight-forwardness, but sees she’s insecure and dominated by a pushy mother. When she painted Emma’s portrait, she showed her as Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, preparing to put on a mask that will soon become her face.

There are some great set pieces in this “autobiography” when Miranda Miller brings together Angelica’s experiences and some of the civic, military and social “events” of her time: What it was like to be a Catholic – Angelica remained a pious observer all her life – in 1780 London, when the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots rage through the streets and the Kaufmann family wait for the mob to drag them out of their house; the humiliation of the Romans when Napoleon’s troops kidnap Pope Pius VII and force him to officiate at the self-proclaimed emperor’s coronation; the decadence and extravagance of a Venetian gambling den where the Russian Tsar’s son and descendants of a Byzantine emperor gain and lose fortunes in seconds.

The Royal Academy Angelica Kaufmann exhibition, planned for this summer, has had to be put on hold. But at least we have this lively book.

  • Angelica: Paintress of Minds. By Miranda Miller. Barbican Press £12.99.

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