Oxford historian and biographer Goodden (The Sweetness of Life, 1999) enlists her considerable knowledge of 18th-century art history in this fine study of the popular, though frequently belittled, Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman.
Goodden attempts to raise Kauffman's technical reputation while acknowledging her faults. Much like her contemporary Vigée Le Brun, Kauffman was denied the rigorous art training afforded to men, such as learning to draw anatomy from life, and relegated to so-called feminine and decorative subjects such as flower-painting and botanical drawing. However, Kauffman was a sensational popular portraitist in her heyday of late 18th-century London—she was triumphantly elected to the Royal Academy in 1768. She learned how to paint from her Austrian father, who would exert a strong influence on her for most of her life. Early on, she rejected her Swiss origins, and she received her formative training in Italy, copying the masters. On her Grand Tour, she picked up important commissions from the aristocracy, and her fame grew, as did her earnings for portraits; the young woman was the breadwinner in the household. Famous portraits of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and David Garrick established her reputation by the time she arrived in London, and she cemented important friendships with Joshua Reynolds and Henry Fuseli. Despite a rash marriage to a man who turned out to be a faux aristocrat and bigamist, Kauffman seems to have lead the quiet, single-minded life of a serious and industrious artist; her Catholicism prompted her to eventually flee her beloved England and settle in Rome with a second husband and friend to her father. A portrait of Goethe followed on their brief acquaintance, though he complained it was “effeminate.” In the end, the author deems Kauffman a populist, adaptable painter whose own success creating pretty pictures damned her.
Goodden's well-measured life of the artist may help bring Kauffman's oeuvre back to light.