top of page

We are not a muse: the forgotten female founder of the Royal Academy


Angelica Kauffman, Portraits of Domenica Morghen and Maddalena Volpato as Muses of Tragedy and Comedy, 1791. Oil on canvas, 125 x 158 cm. National Museum in Warsaw MNW. Photo © Collection of National Museum in Warsaw. Photo: Piotr Ligier.

A celebrated portraitist and one of two female founding members of the Royal Academy of Art, Angelica Kauffman used her talent and connections to build a successful artistic career at a time when few women were able to do so. Placing women, and indeed herself, at the centre, Kauffman’s works can be seen to critique the marginalisation of women in creative circles and to assert her own right to be taken seriously as an artist. She not only preferred female subjects for her mythological and historical paintings, but used composition and classical allusion to elevate herself and her sitters, reclaiming the figure of the Muse as a creative force – inspired, rather than purely inspiring. Commissioned to produce four ceiling painting for the Academy in Somerset House, Kauffman chose to represent the four elements of art, ‘Invention’, ‘Design’, ‘Composition’, and ‘Colouring’ – as women.

The exhibition situates her self-representation alongside works of male academicians, providing some insight into the reception of women within the academy. Richard Samuel’s ‘Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of the Apollo’ (1778) is a celebratory portrayal of some of the leading female creatives and intellectuals of late eighteenth-century England (many of them less well-known now) as the Greek Muses. A less flattering portrait, however, is Nathaniel Hone’s ‘The Conjuror’ (1775), which satirises Joshua Reynolds as derivative, and disparagingly depicts Kauffman as a child at his knee. The image was removed from display and amended after a letter of complaint from Kauffman which demanded ‘respect’ from her colleagues. Kauffman’s own work instead positions her as the equal and interlocutor the academy’s first president, using a composition reminiscent of portraits of Reynolds in her ‘Self-Portrait with the Bust of Minerva’ (1780 – ’84).

Angelica Kauffman, Self-portrait in the Traditional Costume of the Bregenz Forest, 1781. Oil on canvas, 61.4 x 49.2 cm. Innsbruck, TLM, Ältere kunstgeschichtliche Sammlung, inv. Gem 301. Photo: Innsbruck, Tiroler Landesmuseen.

Although a founding member of the Academy, Kauffman was nonetheless excluded from central tenets of artistic practice, including life-drawing classes, on the grounds of her sex. Johan Zoffany’s painting of ‘The Academicians of the Royal Academy’ (1771 – 72) in a life-drawing class, consequently includes Kauffman and Mary Moser only as portraits on the wall, highlighting their limited acceptance within male-dominated artistic circles.

Despite the barriers facing her as a woman, however, Kauffman was able to succeed through her connections and her canny business sense. Ahead of her relocation to London in the late 1760s, she gained a reputation for painting British tourists in Italy, and sent her portrait of David Garrick, one of the most famous actors of the time, to be displayed at the Free Society of Artists to great acclaim. Having established her studio at Charing Cross in 1765, she then began to paint innovative scenes from British history and literature, as well as the major figures of late eighteenth-century England, including Queen Charlotte.

Overall, Kauffman comes across as a talented and intelligent artist, who used her power of self-representation and her canny sense for networking and self-promotion to achieve fame and success. This exhibition restores her to her rightful place of inclusion and acclaim within the Academy.

Angelica Kauffman is on at the Royal Academy of Arts until 30th June 2024.

Students go for £11.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn