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A colourful world - A review of Angelica Kauffman's 'Colour.'

The artist reaches to the sky, where a rainbow sits; incomprehensibly tangible to the artist. Does she use her paintbrush to complete the rainbow or to sample the colours within it?

Angelica Kauffman was a Swiss-born artist trained in Italy, and by 1766 had settled in London[1]. She was one of two women to be founding members of the Royal Academy of Art. A credit to her repute, Kauffman was commissioned to paint a series of works for the lecture theatre in the Academy’s Council room: Somerset House[2]. In response, Kauffman composed a four-piece collection entitled Elements of Art: Colour, Composition, Design and Invention, where she positions herself as both the artist and the muse. These works stood as allegorical personifications of art fundamentals and were composed using traditional conceptions of symbolism and style. Despite Kauffman’s early childhood being characterised by ornamental notions of Rococo, by the time of composing her Elements of Art, the art world had fashioned a renewed taste for the classics[3]. This was the beginning of the neo-classical period.

Neoclassicism was a period that idealised the works of antiquity from Rome and Greece. For Kauffman, this is exemplified in her use of traditional pose and garb. Colour sits in a natural landscape – hair astray, draped in cloth – with one breast partially exposed. In many classical works of art, the exposure of the left breast symbolises divinity[4]. This can be seen in Raphael’s La Fornarina and La Velata as well as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus[5].

Figure 2. Raphael, La Fornarina, 1518-1519 Figure 3. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of

Oil on wood, National Gallery of Ancient Art  Venus, 1485–1486, Tempera, Uffizi

in Barberini Palace. Gallery.

Italian literary critic Joseph Baretti suggests in ‘A guide through the Royal Academy’ that each element represents a different stage in Kauffman’s life. Colour in this way reflects a “blooming young virgin”.[6] The virginal status attributed to her suggests that colour, of all the elements, is the genesis of all that follows.

Unlike Composition and Invention, which appear poised in a position of reflection, Colour and Design are actively involved in the process of creation. In fact, Kauffman’s depiction of Colour appears as a goddess-like figure, creating the world around her. The line between creator and creation is blurred as art becomes a religion, painter becomes the muse. Furthermore, Cesare Ripa’s ‘Iconologia’ – a dictionary for classical symbolism – depicts art as a woman holding a hammer, engraving tool, and pencil in one hand and a stake and vine in the other[7]. Ripa suggests all these objects “are for intimating nature.”[8] Colour’s position in a natural setting reflects this notion of art and colour’s vital role within the discipline.

Figure 4. Ceasar Ripa, Art in Iconologia (London: Benjamin Motte, 1709), 28.

Conversely, however, her pallet holds only a tiny daub of white paint. It seems as if Colour is taking from the world around her, rather than giving. This work can either be read from the perspective of Colour, who takes from her surroundings or Kauffman, who gives her the power to do so. Both artist and artwork work in tandem to depict the inseparable relationship between colour and art – art and the world.

Although traditional notions of iconography influenced Kauffman, the works express her personal ideas and understandings. The chameleon at her feet and the rainbow above her represent the abound of colour found in the natural world. However, when conferring with classical notions of symbolism, a rainbow is hardly ever recognised as a symbol of colour. Instead, it is usually considered as a representation of air[9]. This appears particularly poignant when considering that Kauffman’s works were not displayed alone. In fact, they surrounded another work by American artist Benjamin West entitled The Graces Unveiling Nature: Air, Earth, Fire and Water.[10] In West’s depiction of air, he utilised the rainbow symbol, inextricably connecting Kauffman’s work to his. In this way, Kauffman combines art elements with nature, suggesting that art is fundamental to the human experience.

Figure 5. Benjamin West, The Graces Unveiling Nature: Air, Earth, Fire and Water, 1779, Oil on Canvas, Royal Academy of Arts.

It is vital to consider Kauffman’s cultural context as a female artist during the Eighteenth Century and its effect on her art-making practices. Being one of the two only female founding members of the Royal Academy, Kauffman used her art to promote the power of her gender. As mentioned, Kauffman used her work to show arts connection to the world, nature, and the human experience. However, considering that the pieces are all versions of self-portraiture, she also connects the work to herself. Disrupting classical patriarchal conceptions, Kauffman positions herself as a creator, literally and metaphorically. The artworks position, hanging above its viewers – most of them male students – she physically places herself above them, uplifting herself above a world that systematically oppresses her. In such a way, Kauffman uses her art to uplift both herself and the power of her gender. Art, and the elements that compose it, are fundamental regardless of the gender of the creator.

Kauffman’s work symbolises the relationship between colour and art, artist and muse, humans and nature. With her body draped over the canvas, Colour is taking from her surroundings and giving back. She hangs above her audience, watching them learn about her discipline and the interconnecting relationship she plays with the other elements. Kauffman’s classical style paints Colour as a goddess of art, and a power in her Eighteen Century, British milieu. All of this culminates in a work that is both powerful in its composition and elegant in its execution.


[1] Patricia Crown, "Eighteenth-Century Visual Culture and Current British Art History: A Review Essay." Eighteenth-Century Studies 28, no. 1(1994): 139[2] “Colour,” RA Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, accessed March 10, 2021,[3] Peter Walch, "An Early Neoclassical Sketchbook by Angelica Kauffman," The Burlington Magazine, 1977, 98.[4] Lillian Joyce, “Roma and the Virtuous Breast,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 59, (2014): 2[5] Paul Barolsky, "Looking at Venus: A Brief History of Erotic Art." Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 7, no. 2 (1999): 96.[6] Joseph Baretti, A Guide through the Royal Academy (Thomas Cadell, 1781), 26,[7] Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Benjamin Motte, 1709), 7,[8] Ibid[9] Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art (London: Laurance King, 1999), 633-34.[10] Ibid


Baretti, Joseph. A Guide through the Royal Academy. London: Thomas Cadell, 1781. Accessed March 12, 2021.

Crown, Patricia. "Eighteenth-Century Visual Culture and Current British Art History: A Review Essay." Eighteenth-Century Studies(The Johns Hopkins University Press) 28, no. 1 (1994): 137-40. Accessed March 11, 2021. doi:doi:10.2307/2739229.

Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming. A World History of Art. Fifth. London: Laurence King Publishing, 1999. Accessed March 11, 2021.

Joyce, Lillian. "Roma and the Virtuous Breast." Edited by American Academy in Rome. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome(University of Michigan Press) 59, (2014): 1-49. Accessed March 12, 2021.

Ripa, Cesare. Iconologia. London: Benjamin Motte, 1709. Accessed March 12, 2021.

Walch, Peter. "An Early Neoclassical Sketchbook by Angelica Kauffman." The Burlington Magazine (Burllington Magazine Publications Ltd) 119 no. 887 (1977): 98 - 111. Accessed March 11, 2021.

Hyde, Sarah. "Angelica Kauffman." Print Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1993): 183-87. Accessed March 14, 2021.

Barolsky, Paul. "Looking at Venus: A Brief History of Erotic Art." Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, 7, no. 2 (1999): 93-117. Accessed March 14, 2021.

Juneau, Thomas. "Neoclassical Realism." In Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical Realism and Iran's Foreign Policy, 17-34. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2015. Accessed March 14, 2021. doi:10.2307/j.ctvqsf1bv.6.

Royal Academy of Arts. "Colour." RA Collection. Accessed March 10, 2021.'s%20four%20paintings%20collectively,and%20later%20published%20in%201788.

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