Angelica Kauffman; Sargent and Fashion review – looks are everything

<span>‘Her figures pose, point and gesture with all the subtlety of street signs’: Self-portrait of the artist who hesitates between the art of music and painting by Angelica Kauffman, 1794.</span><span>Photo: © National Trust Images</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY1Mw–/ a038db19884b” data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY1Mw–/ db19884b”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=‘Her figures pose, point and gesture with all the subtlety of street signs’: Self-portrait of the artist who hesitates between the art of music and painting by Angelica Kauffman, 1794.Photo: © National Trust Images

Two women were among the 34 artists who founded the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 – not that you would know that from Johan Zoffany’s infamous group portrait of the founders in breeches and wigs. The scene is a life drawing lesson, arranged around a nude male model. The artists are all busy observing and chatting, except for the two excluded women. Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, the instigators of the classes of life from which they were banished, are present only as a pair of sketchy canvases – two pale ghosts stuck to the wall.

Kauffman (1741-1807) has had to wait a long time to return to the institution she co-founded, but the Royal Academy has mounted an elegant and selective exhibition that does not exaggerate her gifts. Kauffman, born in Switzerland and apprenticed to her father early on, gained fame throughout Europe with portraits, self-portraits and history paintings. Her social network was second to none. Arriving in London in her twenties, just after painting the German art historian Winckelmann, pen in hand, she portrayed actors, socialites, aristocrats and eventually the monarchy, before retreating to the continent, where Goethe was a client . The sculptor Antonio Canova organized her enormous funeral in Rome.

Half of Sargent’s sitters wore the new fashionable black, and when visiting Monet he was unable to work because his friend did not own black paint

She is a remarkable case: soft to sweet, yet also smart and tenacious. She gets Winckelmann’s passionate theorizing and David Garrick’s actor-manager flair, his head tilted and his lively gaze aimed directly at us. A kind of broad theatricality is indeed Kauffman’s own style. Sometimes this is a matter of casting – Emma, ​​Lady Hamilton, all sashing in white chiffon as the muse of comedy – and sometimes it is in the faintly painted backgrounds and props, like elements of a stage set. But most of all it is in the way her figures pose, point and gesture with the subtlety of street signs.

Jesus, one hand on his chest, points straight up with the other: Indeed, I am the Son of God. Quick, come this In this way, the muse of painting gestures in a self-mythologizing portrait, while the muse of music tugs plaintively on Kauffman’s other hand. Women are at the center of everything – her specialty – by begging, protecting, arguing about their offspring, listening to poetry or simply waiting for the hero’s return. Considering her loom, Penelope might have seemed quite melancholy if she hadn’t rolled her eyes so loudly at the sky.

Kauffman had a very close relationship with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the RA – her portrait of him is gentle, transparent and full of mutual affection. But their friendship was scandalous, as he was almost twenty years older, and was lampooned by a fellow artist with a painting of a child on an old man’s knee. When the RA threatened to put it on display, Kauffman sent a formidable letter (it’s here). Please respect my gender or return my photos. She won.

If only her art were just as provocative, instead of frictionlessly fashionable. But there are moments of truth among the neoclassical fantasies. A female artist, with her mouth slightly open, leans forward to draw the mighty Belvedere Torso. Another, brush in hand, appears to sweep a rainbow across the sky with a powerful whir. Both have rolled up their sleeves and get to work: telling what it is like to be a woman painting at the end of the 18th century.

Anyone who thinks that clothing is not an integral part of art history might consider the case of Madame Sargent and fashion at Tate Britain. There she stands, with her nose in the air, one hand flexed impatiently on a table, making a public appearance in (and partly out of) a vertiginous black dress. Black on black, form-fitting, stiff as alabaster, it is shockingly abrupt – a dress that structures both the painting and her body.

We would hardly know Virginie Gautreau’s name without the dress and its image. For Sargent, clothing makes both man and woman, and very often the portrait itself. Liquid silk, lustrous velvet, Lady Agnew’s lavender chiffon wisps, the dull sheen of golden frogs, the blistering sharpness of lemon-yellow satin: all are depicted with surprising synaesthetic eloquence.

Sargent – ​​flashy, smooth, addicted to appearances, as fascinated by clothing as its wearer, the surfaces of his canvases sometimes as decorated as a House of Worth dress (several originals are included) – is the ideal subject for such a show.

It opens with the immense lament of an operatic cloak, as worn by Lady Sassoon in Sargent’s 1907 portrait, her complexion rosy through the flirtatiously revealed lining. Seeing them together, object and image, makes you think about the way he (and she) gets the light into his deadly black folds. Her contemporary Ena Wertheimer also conquers a challenging garment, and you sense the artist’s joy in the way she joyfully rises above her shiny white underdress.

Sargent can be carried away: Isa Boit with her easy smile, buck teeth and double chin, all rude wholesomeness in pink and black polka dots. Henry James described her as “brilliantly kind… eternally youthful,” just as she appears. But he can also be blank, skimming over boring men in suits. US President Woodrow Wilson: what an astonishingly empty portrait.

The curator puts a nice emphasis on Sargent’s relationships with American ladies and lousy English ladies. The wall texts are witty – of feathers and iridescent beetles: “the terrible toll fashion took on nature” – and packed with knowledge. Half of his sitters wore the newly fashionable black in the 1880s, and Sargent, visiting Monet, was unable to work during the trip because his friend did not own black paint.

Photos show Sargent in rapid motion, flicker in mouth, during sessions. He plays Percy Grainger and Ethel Smythe. When a foolish nanny arrives in the wrong color, he drapes her in his own silk fabric. It was reported that sitters dress from his photographs and “when they buy a dress they ask, ‘Will it paint?'”.

Faced with the true intellect, Sargent is able to absorb it – the strange writer Vernon Lee; Ellen Terry in her beetle costume as Lady Macbeth. But he’s definitely more comfortable with vanity. Lord Ribblesdale soars ten miles high in his riding coat and absurdly low-slung breeches; but a life-size photo shows that the real man was more ridiculous.

Sargent gave them what they wanted – and what they gave him in return, which was sometimes little more than a social guise and costume. “The coat is the photo,” he said of a painfully limp sitter. His own self-portrait from 1906 is extremely private: a closed face towards the world. But by then he was the height of fashion, a public figure fit for cartoons. Witness Max Beerbohm’s beautiful caricature of Sargent working hard, using two brushes for speed, knocking out the social portraits.

Star ratings (out of five)
Angelica Kauffman ★★★
Sargent and fashion ★★★★

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