Paintress of Minds
Published by Barbican Press, 2020
When Angelica Kauffman arrives in London as a young woman in 1766, she is so successful that a new word is coined: Angelicamad. Many years later in Rome, as an old lady, she is afraid of the new century which is destroying the world she knew. Napoleon’s armies are storming Italy and she expects her work to be looted. She tells her life story through the portraits she painted and the friendships she enjoyed with Goethe, Emma Hamilton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Madame de Stael and Canova.
Re-imagining Kauffman’s innermost thoughts and feelings, Miller provides a running commentary from childhood to death, in an intimate first-hand narrative. She takes the reader through Kauffman’s home-schooling by her artist father, to her early commissions and her entree to high society.
There are some great set pieces in this “autobiography” when Miranda Miller brings together Angelica’s experiences and some of the civic, military and social events of her time: what it was like to be a Catholic – Angelica remained a pious observer all her life – in 1780 London, when the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots rage through the streets and the Kauffmann family wait for the mob to drag them out of their house; the humiliation of the Romans when napoleon’s troops kidnap Pope Pius V11 and force him to officiate at the self-proclaimed emperor’s coronation; the decadence and extravagance of a Venetian gambling den where the Russian Tsar’s son and descendants of a Byzantine emperor gain and lose fortunes in seconds. The Royal Academy’s Angelica Kauffmann exhibition, planned for this summer, has had to be put on hold. But at least we have this lively book.
The portrait Miller paints is warm and compassionate, we get a sense of a woman who understands her worth and certainly knows she is as good as any of her male contemporaries, Angelica is a confident artist driven by her talent. Readers will come away with an impression of an intelligent woman, ahead of her times, largely undaunted by the misogyny and constrictions of the times. This is a celebration of a life, a credible portrait of a feminist icon, a woman who should be better remembered – she deserves it. This is a lightly told and entertaining read, gripping and thought provoking. You won’t need to care about painting to enjoy this novel.
Miranda Miller’s novel, a first-person account of the life of the 18th-century Swiss neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman, faithfully reflects the career of the somewhat overlooked founding member of the Royal Academy… A fascinating life and a fine painter in what’s a story well told by Miller.
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 richly imagined and authoritative portrait of a fascinating and important painter, and a woman who was one of the most famous people of her era. Miller explores Angelica’s vivid and conflicted inner life with panache and passion.