Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A personification of Hebe 

Angelica Kauffmann RA (1741-1807)

A personification of Hebe, Angelica Kauffmann RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30¼ x 25 inches, 76.8 x 63.5 cm.
We are grateful to Professor Wendy Roworth for confirming the attribution to Kauffmann.

It is perhaps indicative of the social constraints faced by English women in the eighteenth century that one of the most successful female artists of her generation, Angelica Kauffman, was born on the continent. There, more enlightened attitudes allowed women to study art with a view to a serious career, and numerous female painters, including Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marguérite Gérard, and Marie-Victoire Lemoine, continued the strong precedent established by such painters as Sofonisba. In fact, one can argue that it was in the field of art that women first proved themselves the professional equal of men, despite the fact that they continued to face the usual inane prejudices one would expect – Kauffman, for example, was refused access to nude, life-classes while training in Rome.

Kauffman was much influenced by pioneering neo-classicists such as Benjamin West, Gavin Hamilton and Nathaniel Dance. This was a further indication not only of her talent, but a determination to succeed in a male dominated world, for history painting, with its large canvasses, complex narratives, and often tortured poses, was then considered the most challenging type of art one could practice. She was increasingly patronized by English ‘Grand Tourers’ such as Brownlow Cecil, Earl of Essex, and the actor David Garrick, and in 1766 she accepted an invitation to continue her career in England.

After her arrival, the whole of London went “Angelicamad”, as one contemporary wrote. Kauffman’s graceful, elegant style accorded well with the prevailing rococo taste in England, and there was much demand for the delicate technique seen here. She became a favourite of Joshua Reynolds, himself an advocate of history painting, and gossip suggested that for the advances of one artist, she had forsaken another – Nathaniel Dance was sorely disappointed in her refusal of his hand in marriage. In any case, Kauffman’s easy manner and skill led to much society patronage, from royalty downwards, and she became a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. Her depictions of classical legends proved highly popular. This picture shows a woman in the guise of Hebe, the goddess of youth. It may have been a specific portrait of a now unknown sitter. It is not a self-portrait of the artist, as the earlier provenance and accompanying catalogue of the 1953 Graves Art Gallery exhibition suggested.

After a disastrously brief marriage to an imposter with the improbable name of Count Von Horn, Kauffman left England for Rome once more in 1781. There, her studio became a focal point of the city, and she became friends with Goethe, Canova and Sir William Hamilton, while her patrons included royalty from almost all Europe, most notably Catherine the Great of Russia, and Joseph II of Austria.

Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.