Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Holy Family 

Angelica Kauffmann RA (1741-1807)

Holy Family, Angelica Kauffmann RA
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Oil and Canvas
18th Century
10 1/4 by 12 1/2 in.; 26 by 31.8 cm.
 
Provenance:
According to a wax seal verso, a Russian private collection, probably in the early 20th Century; The Irene Von Cseh Trust; By whom sold Sotheby’s New York 28th January 2011, lot 106, as ‘follower of Angelica Kauffmann’
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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 newly discovered Holy Family by Kauffmann was probably painted while she was in London. The demand for religious scenes in England would have been considerably less than Kauffmann was used to in Europe, and the small-scale composition seen here may suggest a private or informal commission. (We cannot rule out, however, the idea that the picture may be a precursor to a larger, if unknown composition.) An interesting pentimento in the top right hand corner reveals that the oval surround was introduced late on in the painting process by Kauffmann; the dark background adjacent to the lighter wall originally extended towards the top edge of the canvas, and has been painted over. The introduction of the oval surround frames the picture in a more intimate manner, and focuses the viewer’s attention still further on the interaction of the Virgin and Christ, with Joseph looking on. The early history of this picture is unfortunately not yet known. A fragment of a wax seal on the reverse of the stretcher shows the double-headed eagle of the Russian imperial coat of arms. The Cyrillic text surrounding the seal is not entirely legible, but appears to refer to an army division, probably at the time of the Russian revolution, and probably part of the White Russian forces. The tempting conclusion here is that the picture is somehow connected to Kauffmann’s great patron, Catherine the Great. Further research may reveal more information. What appears to be an early 20th Century label on the reverse suggests it was exhibited in England, as by Kauffmann. The picture was most recently in the American private collection of Irene Von Cseh, from whose trust it was sold in New York, however, as by a ‘follower of Angelica Kauffmann’. The picture seen by Sotheby’s was quite substantially covered in unnecessary over-paint, as well as considerable layers of dirt and old varnish. Now removed, the picture can once again be restored to Kauffmann’s oeuvre.

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.
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