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1779 The Muse in the Temple of Apollo

Two weeks before the opening of the Royal Academy’s exhibition in April 1779, a new book was advertised in the London press. Roger Shanhagan’s The Exhibition was ostensibly a preview of the Academy’s show, but in fact, it was a biting satire of the contemporary art world created by three young artists who used “Shanhagan” as a pseudonym.1

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The Exhibition pours scorn on the neoclassical work of the architects Robert and James Adam and the painters Giovanni Battista Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann, but its criticism of Kauffmann is intensified by Shanhagan’s inability to reconcile her gender with her artistic ambitions. Shanhagan’s account of Kauffmann’s work focuses on her depictions of classical figures in revealing drapery, implying that she chose her subject matter for its prurient potential rather than its classical connotations. Describing an imaginary painting by Kauffmann, Shanhagan dwells with crude irony on a figure of Venus, who is “decently covered all over” with drapery that “curiously preserves the exact form of the part beneath”. In the same imaginary painting, Shanhagan also comments on the depiction of a Satyr’s “libidinous expression” and professes surprise that such a confident and accurate rendering of sexual desire could have come “from the pencil of a Lady”. Equally astonished by her “skill in anatomy”, Shanhagan sarcastically accounts for these achievements as “innate accomplishments”, since the writers claim to be “confident that the usual modes necessary to acquire a competent knowledge in that art, are utterly incompatible with the chastity of a female; particularly Mrs Kauffman.”2

In the broader context of this deeply satirical text, the implication is clear. Shanhagan simultaneously casts aspersions on Kauffmann’s artistic training and on her character. One of the “usual modes” of acquiring knowledge in anatomy was, of course, a student’s training in formal life drawing. Shanhagan suggests that, since women were disbarred from life drawing on the grounds of modesty, Kauffmann could not have studied the nude body as part of her artistic education. The writers explicitly state that her understanding of human anatomy and “libidinous” expressions must therefore be “innate” accomplishments. But, implicitly, they suggest another conclusion—that what little knowledge Kauffmann did have of anatomy must have been gained through erotic experience. Shanhagan puts Kauffmann in the impossible situation of being mocked both for her ignorance and for her knowledge of anatomy.

Shanhagan’s satire reveals that female artists were vulnerable to attacks on both the quality of their art and the quality of their morals. Women were excluded from most formal artistic education in this period and the female imagination was thought to be repetitive, imitative, and confined to the lower genres of still life and portraiture.3 Kauffmann, however, had attempted to break out of this mould.4 She was a founder member of the Royal Academy and was acclaimed across Europe as an exception to her gender, a prodigy who could paint historical subjects as skilfully as a man. In 1778, the London Chronicle had celebrated her “vigour of mind” and strong “genius” for history painting, a “sublime branch of art” that was neglected by “most of the male pencils in the kingdom”.5 This sort of praise, which ascribed stereotypically masculine epithets of vigorousness, strength, and sublimity to a woman, was unsurprisingly countered with vitriolic attacks on Kauffmann’s femininity, virtue, and artistic abilities. Shanhagan was not alone in mixing contempt for her draughtsmanship and style with lewd insinuations about her sexual experiences. As Wendy Wassyng Roworth has discussed, salacious rumours circulated concerning Kauffmann’s acquisition of knowledge about male anatomy. In 1775, her concern for her reputation had led her to demand successfully that Nathanial Hone’s satirical painting The Conjurer be removed from the Royal Academy exhibition, because she believed that Hone had impugned her modesty.6

In 1779, Kauffmann triumphed at the exhibition in her own right, despite the criticism levelled at her in the pages of Shanhagan’s satirical review. She exhibited seven well-received paintings at the Academy—one of the highest numbers of exhibits from a single contributor—with subject matter spanning classical mythology, religion, allegory, and portraiture. Kauffmann’s likeness also appeared in another work on show, Richard Samuel’s Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, which portrays nine female artists, musicians, and writers, including the critic and “bluestocking” Elizabeth Montagu, the poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and the historian Catharine Macaulay (Fig. 1). Each member of this modern pantheon of female talent is dressed in classical garb, and many of them hold attributes that hint both at their professions and at the muses they were supposedly representing. Samuel had already published a version of this composition in the Ladies New and Polite Pocket Memorandum-Book for 1778, suggesting that there was a growing market for such images, particularly among female audiences.7

While Samuel’s picture celebrates its subjects, it does so by casting them in the symbolic role of muses, who inspired men rather than being creators in their own right. In order to make them palatable to exhibition-goers and print-buyers, these individuals have been homogenised into relatively indistinguishable classical types, handmaidens to the art of men. This was hardly an unusual strategy, however, and Angelica Kauffmann herself blurred the boundary between self-portraiture and allegory. She gave her own features to one of the models and muses in Zeuxis Selecting a Model for his Painting of Helen of Troy (ca. 1778), and depicted herself as a personification of “Design” in The Artist in the Character of Design, Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry (1782).8 In 1779, the year that Samuel’s painting depicted her as a classical muse of painting, she was at work on four allegories of the “Elements of Art”—Invention, Composition, Design, and Colour—each embodied by a female figure in classical dress (Fig. 2).

After the exhibition of 1779, the Academy moved its premises to Somerset House, where Kauffmann’s “Elements of Art” were installed in the ceiling of the new Council Chamber. Kauffmann was excluded from membership of the Council but, through her paintings, she figuratively looked down on its meetings from above. The contrasting depictions of Kauffmann in Shanhagan’s satire and Samuel’s painting provide a window onto broader debates about genius, creativity, and gender raging in late eighteenth-century Britain. Yet the success of Kauffmann’s work at the 1779 exhibition and her prominence in the new Royal Academy building show that she was able to turn those debates to her advantage, forging her own creative identity at the heart of the artistic establishment.

  1. Roger Shanhagan, The Exhibition, or a Second Anticipation: Being Remarks on the Principal Works to Be Exhibited next Month, at the Royal Academy (London: Richardson and Urquhart, 1779). On the identity of the writers—the painters Robert Smirke and Robert Watson, and the architect William Porden—see Kenneth Garlick, Angus D. Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave, (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), vol. 3, 655.↩︎

  2. Shanhagan, The Exhibition, 24–25.↩︎

  3. For a useful summary of these issues, see Wendy Wassyng Roworth, Mary D. Sheriff, and Anna Lena Lindberg, “Academies of Art”, and Lisa Heer, “Copyists”, in Delia Gaze, Maja Mihajlovic, and Leanda Shrimpton (eds), Dictionary of Women Artists (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997), 43–60.↩︎

  4. See Wendy Wassyng Roworth, “Anatomy is Destiny: Regarding the Body in the Art of Angelica Kauffman”, in Gill Perry and Michael Rossington (eds), Femininity and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 41–62; and Angela Rosenthal, Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).↩︎

  5. “Remarks on the Pictures in the Exhibition of the Royal Academy, concluded”, The London Chronicle, no. 3340 (30 April–2 May 1778), 421, quoted in Elizabeth Eger, “Representing Culture: ‘The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain’”, in Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Clíona Ó Gallchoir, and Penny Warburton (eds), Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 118.↩︎

  6. See Roworth, “Anatomy is Destiny”, 44–45.↩︎

  7. See Eger, “Representing Culture”; and Lucy Peltz, “Living Muses: Constructing and Celebrating the Professional Woman in Literature and the Arts”, in Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz (eds), Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2008), 57–93.↩︎

  8. See Roworth, “Anatomy is Destiny”, 56–57. On the prominent role given to female protagonists of classical mythology in Kauffmann’s work, see Rosenthal, Angelica Kauffman. On the broader representation of female sitters—including artists and writers—as muses, see Eger, “Representing Culture”; Peltz, “Living Muses”; and Gill Perry, “Women in Disguise: Likeness, the Grand Style and the Conventions of Feminine Portraiture in the Work of Sir Joshua Reynolds”, in Gill Perry and Michael Rossington (eds), Femininity and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 18–40.↩︎

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