Angelica, Paintress of Minds

Written by Miranda Miller
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

This fictionalised account of the life of Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), Swiss-born portraitist, history painter and one of the two female founders of the Royal Academy, was to have accompanied an exhibition of her work in that institution, halted by Covid19. The novel nevertheless stands in its own right as the extraordinary life story of a woman painter in an almost wholly male profession.

Told in Angelica’s voice, it charts her artistic development from youthful prodigy to being the sought-after confidante of queens. Her friendships with Joshua Reynolds, Antonio Canova, Nelson’s Emma Hamilton and Queen Charlotte, among others, are described, along with her unflinching account of her disastrous first marriage, her hopeless attachment to an unsympathetic Goethe and her enduring happiness with Antonio Zucchi.

The arc of Kauffmann’s life was extraordinary: she and Zucchi left London in the wake of the Gordon Riots; she lived through the French occupation of Rome and the looming spectre of Napoleonic domination of Europe, which in its plundering of art treasures, too, was a precursor in some ways of Hitler’s.

The novel is beautifully written, with phrases like the young Angelica thinking “titles make a special shape in the air when people speak them, high and arched”. Kauffmann is presented as hard-working, loyal, kind, sometimes susceptible but more determined than she thinks she is. She had to be, for hers was a man’s world. Her artistic talent was only permitted to grow in the first place because her father eventually enabled it. A ground-breaker, yes, but after Kauffman’s death and that of Mary Moser in 1819, more than a century passed before another woman (Dame Laura Knight) was elected to full membership of the Royal Academy. A rich and engrossing read.