When I was writing my novel about the fascinating painter Angelica Kauffman there were two things I found difficult to understand: her devout Catholicism (I am not religious) and her fear of change in her last years, when she was living in Rome, widowed, waiting for Napoleon’s army to invade. In early nineteenth century century terms she was an old lady - actually younger than I am now - and she wanted to continue to shine in the brilliant world of art and culture in London and Rome that no longer existed because of the wars. Change is inevitable, I thought rather impatiently as I wrote about her sadness and fear of the new century.
The last few strange months have changed all of our lives and now I think I have more empathy for people who lived through past wars and pandemics. We spend most of our lives deluding ourselves that we are important and then some disaster comes along to remind us that we are actually tiny and have no control over these great events.
Angelica was a determined woman who controlled her life from childhood, when her precocious gift was regognised and exploited by her father, an unsuccessful painter. Hers was one of those talents that was perfectly attuned to the taste of her age and she made the most of it, painting portraits of the rich and famous that were flattering and also psychologically acute, like this one of the great classical scho;ar Winckelmann, who was a friend,.
Angelica was good looking and charming, a talented singer who spoke German, Italian and English. When she was twenty-five she moved to London where she very quickly established herself in the highly competitive art world. A new word was coined: Angelicamad. Joshua Reynold liked and encouraged her and as well as portraits she did History and literary paintings, often showing melancholy women left behind by the macho exploits of their men, She also painted many aristocrats and members of the royal family, including Queen Charlotte, who befriended her. These two intelligent cultivated young women were about the same age and the Queen, who was lonely in En gland, was relieved to be able to speak German . This ia a mezzotint of Angelica’s allegorical painting of the Queen about to awaken the sleeping arts in Great Britain.
Angelica was always aware that as a ‘paintress’ she did not have the sexual freedom of male artists. Remarkably, her career and reputation were not damaged by the one mistake she made, her first marriage to the ‘Count de Horn’ who turned out to be a con man. It was probably due to the influence of the Queen that Angelica was one of only two women to become founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts when it opened in 1768. She was a shrewd businesswoman who made a lot of money during her years in London. Here is one of many self portraits she painted from the age of thirteen. I found them very helpful as a guide to exploring her life.
In her late thirties, after her first bigamous marriage was annulled, she married Antonio Zucchi, a Venetian decorative painter fifteen years older than her. She had seen many other women artists ruined by marriage because their husbands were jealous of their talent or objected to their earning money as painters. She drew up what we would call a pre-nuptial agreement, giving her total control over her own money. In fact Zucchi was happy to be supportive of his more famous wife and their marriage seems to have been a happy one.
In 1780 Lord George Gordon let a violently anti-Catholic mob on a rampage of rioting, looting and burning in London that lasted for several days. As Catholics, Angelica and her household were terrified and decided to move back to Italy.
Rome was then the centre of the European art world,where all the Grand Tourists came. Angelica and her husband lived in a very grand house at the top of the Spanish steps. When I was researching my novel I visited Rome, thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation, and found that her house has been demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel.
Her house became an international cultural centre and during those years Angelica painted the Queen of Naples, Antonio Canova, Germaine de Stael, Emma Hamilton and Goethe, all of whom were her friends. After Zucchi died in 1795 she wrote, ‘These happy times are over,’ and for the last years of her life she lived in fear that the soldiers of Napoleon, would arrive and loot her valuable art collection. Lucia, an invented character in my novel, is a young woman Angelica helps who is infatuated with the glamour and excitement of Napoleon and his sister, Princess Pauline Borghese, who was living in Rome. As a conservative Catholic Angelica detested both and mourned the old world that was being swept away by Napoleon. This argument runs throughout the novel. In Lucia’s unconventional spirit Angelica recognises a youth she missed:“She is the girl I trained myself not to be.”
Like us, Angelica lived at a time of enormous change and was often bewildered by it. At the end of her life, still anxious to avoid scandal, she made a bonfire of most of her private papers. I’ve presumptuously tried to bring them back to life in my novel, Angelica Paintress of Minds, which is now out on kindle and will be published by Barbican Books in August.