A child prodigy who was producing commissioned portraits in her early teens, Kauffman was trained by her father, the Swiss muralist Johann Joseph Kauffman. During the early 1760s, she traveled through Switzerland, Austria, and Italy working as her father’s assistant. This transient life provided her the rare opportunity for a woman to see and copy many classical and Renaissance masterworks and to meet leaders of the popular new movement known as Neoclassicism.
During a three-year stay in Italy, Kauffman made her reputation as a painter of portraits; she also produced history paintings. Recognition of her accomplishments is indicated by her election to Rome’s Accademia di San Luca in 1765. In 1766, Kauffmann moved to London, where she achieved immediate success as a portraitist. Over the next 16 years, she exhibited regularly at the prestigious Royal Academy and worked for a glittering array of aristocratic and royal patrons.
In 1781, Kauffman married the painter Antonio Zucchi, who succeeded her father as her business manager. By the time of her death, she had achieved such renown that her funeral was directed by the prominent Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, who based it on the funeral of the Renaissance master Raphael.
While Kauffman produced many types of art, she identified herself primarily as a history painter, an unusual designation for a woman artist in the 18th century. History painting was considered the most elite and lucrative category in academic painting during this time period and, under the direction of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Royal Academy made a strong effort to promote it to a native audience more interested in commissioning and buying portraits and landscapes. Despite the popularity that Kauffman enjoyed in British society, and her success there as an artist, she was disappointed by the relative apathy of the British towards history painting. Ultimately she left Britain for the continent, where history painting was better established, held in higher esteem and patronized.
History painting, as defined in academic art theory, was classified as the most elevated category. Its subject matter was the representation of human actions based on themes from history, mythology, literature, and scripture. This required extensive learning in biblical and Classical literature, knowledge of art theory and a practical training that included the study of anatomy from the male nude. Most women were denied access to such training, especially the opportunity to draw from nude models; yet Kauffman managed to cross the gender boundary to acquire the necessary skill to build a reputation as a successful history painter who was admired by colleagues and eagerly sought by patrons.
The works of Angelica Kauffman have retained their reputation. By 1911, rooms decorated with her work 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, in the Alte Pinakothek at Munich, in Kadriorg Palace, Tallinn (Estonia) and in the Joanneum Alte Galerie at Graz. 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.
Kauffman is also well known by the numerous engravings from her designs by Schiavonetti, Francesco Bartolozzi and others. Those by Bartolozzi especially 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 notable European artists, including a daughter, Angelica Kauffman Peale.
Harmonious and powerful colours and the soft-brushed, multi-layered style of English portraitists, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, are typical for Kauffmann’s paintings.