Pioneering Artist Angelica Kauffman Put Women at Center Stage

The history paintings of this great Neoclassical artist prove the wonderful benefits that inclusion can bring

Cleopatra Adorning the Tomb of Mark Anthony, c. 1765, was one of Angelica Kauffman’s most popular works, reproduced not only in print but also on porcelain and furniture. The Burghley House Collection, Photo © The Burghley House Collection

In 1768, three dozen artists established the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Among their number were two women, but despite the progressive glow the pair’s inclusion may have lent the institution, they would be excluded from its governance. More than 150 years passed before another woman was admitted. Times change, however, and this month the academy will fete one of its female founders, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), with a one-woman show.

During her lifetime, the Swiss-born Kauffman became an accomplished portrait painter, but she remains best known for history and mythology painting. Here, she gravitated toward female subjects like Cleopatra and the sorceress Circe, changing the face of a genre long considered the highest—and most masculine—in Western art. “In this realm, where men were the heroes and women excluded from action,” writes historian Jenny Uglow, “Kauffman still managed to assert women’s power.”

Self-Portrait at the Crossroads Between the Arts of Music and Painting, Angelica Kauffman, oil on canvas, 1794 The Burghley House Collection, Photo © The Burghley House Collection
Portraits of Domenica
Portraits of Domenica Morghen and Maddalena Volpato as Muses of Tragedy and Comedy, Angelica Kauffman, oil on canvas, 1791 The Burghley House Collection, Photo © The Burghley House Collection

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This article is a selection from the March 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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