Melrose Wing of International Art: Self-Guided Audio Tour
Work 3 of 17
Diana and her nymphs bathing
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.