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Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge


 

 

ANGELICA KAUFMANN (1741-1807)

[78]

A
NGELICA KAUFMANN, though the name is foreign, though she was born on the banks of the German Rhine, may still be called an English woman, for her work lay chiefly in England, and the greater part of her life was spent in this country. Although no mighty heroine, she was on the one hand a lover of art, a painter, a musician, in the eyes of the public beautiful and popular; on the other, a genuine, true hearted woman, often deceived, but never deceiving, true to the world, and true to herself. She was born in 1741, at a town on the Rhine, in a wild and picturesque district.

Her father, John Kaufmann, had been a sort of travelling painter, mending a picture here, copying one there, and painting signs for the public houses in the neighbourhood. In the course of his travels he had met a German girl, married her, and their only child they called Marie Anne Angelica Catherine; so, though born to poverty, she was rich in names. John Kaufmann then took to painting as a means of livelihood. The first toys that little Angelica had were his paint-brushes, his unstrained canvas, his bladders of colour, which she would play with till her little [79] fingers were discoloured, and her pinafore daubed all over.

It was not many years before it became evident that the little girl would surpass her father in the love—if not in the art—of painting. When he gave her copy-books to learn her letters, she left the words unwritten, and copied the pictures only. Instead of playing with childish toys, she would get scraps of paper and copy the pictures and models in her father's studio, or sketch the trees and houses in the country round.

Then her father began to teach her drawing; he showed her how to mix the colours, and lay them on; he explained to her about light and shade, and gave her models to copy. When they went out for walks, he would take the child's hand and make her look well at the faces of the people they passed, then draw their features when she got home. So little Angelica, or Angela, as her father loved to call her, learnt to love drawing and painting more and more. When she was eleven, her father moved to Como in Italy; here people heard of Angelica and her wonderful power of painting, and the Bishop of Como offered to sit for the little girl to paint him. He was an old man with a long flowing beard, a difficult subject for such a young artist, but Angelica did it, and the portrait was such a success that the Archbishop of Milan and many other great Italians sat to be painted by the eleven-year-old child, until she had more work than she could well do. Still she went on, learning, copying the Old Masters' pictures, and teaching herself the old Italian art.

[80] When she was sixteen her mother died. Poor little Angelica took it terribly to heart, and her father thought it best to leave Italy and go to Switzerland, so that change of scene might divert her mind. Her father's love for her was unbounded; he petted her, he loved to sing her praises, to call her his Angel, his Angelina, his little artist daughter, and she returned it with all the warmth of her lonely little heart.

Once Angelica was entrusted to paint alone an altar piece on the wall of a village church. Day after day father and daughter went to the church, and Angelica would sit on the top of a high scaffolding, her dark hair falling over her shoulders, her eyes eagerly fixed on the fresco before her, on which angels, lambs, doves, grew under her clever fingers. Below stood the honest John Kaufmann watching the form he loved so well, his arms folded, his head thrown back, and feelings of pride and joy kindling in his heart.

Besides her love for painting, Angelica was intensely fond of music, her voice was pure and sweet, and she could play wonderfully well. She learnt to conquer the most difficult of the grand old Italian pieces, and would sing from memory the old ballads to amuse her father when he was melancholy and troubled. And this was often the case. He had little money, he had nearly starved himself to give his daughter the education he knew she deserved; the roof was humble, the beds were hard, the sheets coarse, the bread dark and sour. Angelica had to mend her own scanty and often thread-bare clothes. But the time was coming when she would have money enough to dress in silk and satin had she wished.

[81] On their return to Milan, John Kaufmann was urged strongly to have Angelica educated for the stage; her beauty and her voice would soon win her renown, they said; managers made her tempting offers, and her father was ready to give his consent. But Angelica was true to her art. The stage had its attractions for her; the offer was a tempting one; she drew a picture of herself standing between music on one side and painting on the other, turning towards painting, and bidding a tender farewell to music. Then bravely, though not without a sigh, she took up her brushes, and with fresh energy set her whole mind to painting.

In 1763 she took up her abode in Venice to study and paint pictures; six years of travelling among Italian art had widened her experience and given a firmer grasp both to mind and hand. Countesses, duchesses, ladies, came to see her, and sit for their portraits, and when, in 1766, a rich lady offered to take her to England to make her fortune, Angelica consented.

The first few days in London were rather lonely for the poor girl, but she soon learnt the English language, and her bright, pleasant manners won her many friends. Among these was Sir Joshua Reynolds, the greatest artist in England.

"Mr. Reynolds is the first of painters here," she wrote to her father in Germany. She admired his colouring so much that she became his pupil, and the great artist was delighted with her, not only as a clever painter, but as a woman. He painted her portrait, she painted his. On the establishment of the [82] Royal Academy, Angelica Kaufmann was made a member. It is said that Sir Joshua Reynolds wanted her to be his wife; be that as it may, we soon after find Angelica living in Golden Square, some way from her old home. She was very popular; no large evening party was complete without her; the world of fashion, the world of art, all sought her society, and her praises were sung throughout the country. She painted the young Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV., and other members of the royal family, which made her trebly popular.

Before beginning a portrait Angelica would scan the features before her closely, she would wait till the sitters had arranged themselves in natural positions, and then, as truthfully as she could, she would paint them. She was making her fortune rapidly; her father had come over to live with her, and life seemed to go on very happily for her till she was twenty-six. Then she married a man calling himself Count Horn, handsome, clever, amusing; but three weeks after it was discovered that the real  Count Horn had arrived in England, and that the man who had married Angelica was only the Count's footman, who had taken his master's name. This was a terrible blow to Angelica and her father; for a long time she seemed bordering on despair, and could not even go on painting. Her husband went abroad, Angelica never saw him again, and he died some years after. At last her friends roused her, and persuaded her to take up her brushes again, and she threw herself into her work once more.

As time wore on, John Kaufmann grew old and [83] infirm, and the doctors said he must go abroad. Angelica was tired of London society, weary of London fogs and mists, and she had long been yearning for her beloved Italy. So they left England, and though it cost Angelica many pangs to leave the friends who had been so kind to her, she was very thankful to be in a sunny climate once more, under the blue Italian skies.

In Venice she painted several well-known pictures on historical subjects; they were eagerly bought at high prices, and are now to be seen in different parts of Europe.

After the death of her father, Angelica took up her abode in Rome; she would get up early, take up her palette and brush, and paint on till sunset in winter, till nearly six in the summer. In the evening, when she could no longer see to paint, she would go out and see her friends, and several nights in the week she would open her rooms to receive visitors. A hall, filled with statues and busts, led to her studio and other rooms, where hung her pictures by the great masters, heads by Vandyke and Rembrandt, her own portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and many other pictures.

Not only by the rich was she known and loved, but also by the poor. Her charity and kindness were boundless; she did not simply give her money to the many beggars who abound in Italy, but she tried to improve their condition, and help them to work for themselves.

Having obtained news of the death of her husband, Angelica Kaufmann married a Venetian artist; to- [84] gether they painted, together they enjoyed the grand Italian art, and when, in 1795, he died, Angelica seemed overwhelmed. This was the beginning of a series of troubles. She lost a great deal of the money she had saved owing to the failure of a bank and the unsettled state of England, which often prevented her money from arriving. "But I have two hands still left," she would say, "and I can still work." In 1802 her health failed. She went to Switzerland for change, but on her return her cough came back. Her strength grow less, her hand lost its cunning, and at last her busy fingers could no longer hold the brush.

In the summer of 1807 she died. People of all ranks gathered together at her funeral in Rome; artists, nobility, poor, and rich came alike to do her honour. Her coffin was borne by girls in white, and like the great master Raphael, her two last pictures were carried behind the coffin, on which was placed a model of her right hand in plaster, with a paint brush between its fingers.

Compared to the great and powerful artists before her, she was no mighty genius; her figures are more full of grace than force or energy; there is a sameness of design, which has called forth the saying, "To see one is to see all," but what she has painted she has painted truly. "Her pencil was faithful to art and womanhood," and we are proud to think that Angelica Kaufmann was one of the greatest artist women the world has ever seen.


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