Angelica Kauffmann
Diana and her nymphs bathing

Angelica Kauffmann, Britain, 1741 - 1807, Diana and her nymphs bathing, c.1778-82, London or Rome, oil on canvas, 66.0 x 66.5 cm; James and Diana Ramsay Fund through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2007, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

About this work of art

Angelica Kauffmann was a pioneer among female painters in Europe in the late eighteenth century. In a period when professional painting was almost exclusively a male domain, her immense talent allowed her to overcome the limitations on other women artists. At the time she created this work around 1780, she was one of the leading painters in London and Rome, a portraitist in high demand from royalty, aristocrats and wealthy patrons across Europe.

Viewed from the twenty-first century, this meditation on the female form does not immediately suggest an advance for feminism. But in the eighteenth century, the fact that such a scene could be painted by a woman represented a significant crack in art’s glass ceiling of gender barriers.

Kauffmann was born in Switzerland in 1741 and first learned to paint from her father, a church muralist. With a precocious talent, she earned acceptance into Rome’s Accademia di San Luca, before moving to England. There, at the age of just twenty-seven, she became a founding member of the Royal Academy – almost 170 years would pass before the Academy next admitted a woman. Yet, despite this recognition of her ability, she was barred from the Academy’s life-drawing room, as the nude body was considered an improper subject for a female artist.

Around this time, Kauffmann also took up ‘history painting’, a genre from which women painters were also excluded. ‘History painting’ depicted not only historical scenes but also events from the Bible and classical mythology. Often epic in its narratives and moving in its representations of human interaction, it was regarded as the noblest form of painting, open only to those considered highly accomplished artists – in effect, to men only.

Diana and her nymphs bathing is one such ‘history painting’ by Kauffmann. It is an exquisite example of the skill of the artist at her peak, painted with the feathery lightness that was characteristic of her brushwork. Its depiction of the huntress goddess and her attendants relaxing in a secluded grotto combines sensuality with a virtuous modesty, while also capturing the neoclassical ideals of elegance, poise and graceful simplicity.

It also captures something of the artist’s character and identity as a woman. A ‘history painting’ depicting nudity, it illustrates the irrepressible nature of a prodigious talent who would not be constrained by gender barriers.

Audio description of the work of art

Painted by the British artist around 1778-82, in London or Rome, this oil on canvas is 66cms high and 66.5cms wide. This circular painting is set within a square frame of decorative gold leaf that is intricately detailed with a series of plain and leaf covered surrounds, with the painting a circle in its centre. The areas at the four corners of the frame are further embellished with small floral motifs, the flowers and their leaves spreading from the corners over a lightly textured background.

This is a history painting of Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt and her nymphs. It depicts a group of five female figures leisurely bathing in a forest grotto. Light spills into the painting from the upper left so that shadows form on the right. The water of the pool in the lower portion of the work is at once clear; transparent, tranquil, and reflective.

In the upper left of the painting, a patch of light blue sky with white clouds sits above a green shrub with fine leaves. A dark overhanging grotto painted in browns and blacks occupies the left half of the work. Overhead grasses and bushes branch protectively over the grotto, their feathery foliage soft and fluffy in browns and dark olive greens.

The focus of the work ranges across the middle section of the circular composition, the figure of the bathing Diana is seated left of centre among her four attendants. Diana’s disrobed body is angled to the right, looking over her left shoulder to the nymph seated beside her on a stone bench. Their tumultuous curls are pulled back from their faces and piled on top of their heads in loosely plaited buns. They wear classical robes in the style of roman togas and gowns, the sensual texture and quality of the fabrics has been expertly handled. The nymph on the left is bedecked in golden robes, and a flurry of rose-pink shawl floats and curls around her right hip, the textures and folds elegantly captured. Her arched left foot extends beneath the folds of her gown, her toes caressing the earth. Her left arm reaches across her torso to hold the white transparent cloth draped around Diana’s shoulders, and her downward gaze inclines towards Diana.

A moon shaped diadem crowns Diana’s head. The pale delicate skin of her face and body glows. Reaching her right hand across her body to hold the end of the cloth that loosely drapes around her, exposes the nipple of her small breasts. The cloth that reveals rather than cloths her, wraps behind her long body and over her left bicep, then flows down to modestly cover her lap and upper thighs. Her left hand catches the cloth before it trails elegantly into the pool at her feet. Her naked belly and right leg lead the eye down to her toes which dip into the water.

Seated behind Diana on the right two nymphs are seated in the depth of the grotto, eyes locked upon each other, they engage in intimate conversation. The nymph on the right of Diana is draped in a loose pink tunic, laced tightly under the bust. Her left arm rests upon her lap guiding to Diana’s elbow, her right arm lazes on the shoulder of her companion who lounges in front of her. The nymph on the right wears a red gown, with a white underlay that has slipped from her left shoulder. Her blue shawl falling from her other elbow which she rests against a roughly hewn wall. Her hands play with the leather straps of a quiver full of arrows which lie along the stone bench. A discarded dark green shawl lies under the quiver and completes the tableau. The robust red and gold colours of the nymphs’ dresses are an exquisite foil that emphasize the delicate hues and tones of Diana’s soft skin.

In the right foreground the fourth nymph is seated on the edge of the pool. Her gentle virtuous face, cheeks flushed with a pink blush, gazes to the right across her shoulder, feet languidly positioned in the water. The light glows off her luminous naked flesh. Her blonde hair is held up in a loose bun and tiny tendrils curl around her forehead, some long curls escaping to dangle over her shoulder. Her profile is delicately painted with rosy lips. A white cloth lies across her lap and gathers in a loose bundle at her right hip. Her arms are crossed, and she leans forward as if washing her right leg with cloth held in her left hand. The dark colours from the depths of the pool reflect the draped fabric and Diana’s leg.

The atmosphere is languid and quiet, this is a soft secluded moment, at once both sensual and yet modest and virtuous, completed with a delicate feathery lightness of touch and masterful control.