Angelica Kauffman; Sargent and Fashion review – appearance is all

<span>‘Her figures pose, point and gesture with all the subtlety of street signs’: Self-portrait of the Artist Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman, 1794.</span><span>Photograph: © National Trust Images</span>
‘Her figures pose, point and gesture with all the subtlety of street signs’: Self-portrait of the Artist Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman, 1794.Photograph: © National Trust Images

Two women were among the 34 artists who founded the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 – not that you would know it from Johan Zoffany’s notorious group portrait of the founders in breeches and periwigs. The scene is a life drawing class, arranged around a naked male model. The artists are all busy observation and natter, except for the two excluded women. Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, instigators of the very life classes from which they were banned, are present only as a pair of sketchy canvases – two pale spectres tacked to the wall.

Kauffman (1741-1807) has had to wait a long time to return to the institution she co-founded, but the Royal Academy has organised an elegant and selective exhibition that does not overstate her gifts. Born in Switzerland, apprenticed early to her father, Kauffman found fame across Europe for portraits, self-portraits and history paintings. Her social network was second to none. Arriving in London in her 20s, fresh from painting the German art historian Winckelmann, pen in hand, she portrayed actors, socialites, aristocrats and eventually the monarchy, before retiring to the continent, where Goethe was a client. The sculptor Antonio Canova organised her enormous funeral in Rome.

Half of Sargent’s sitters wore the newly fashionable black, and visiting Monet he couldn’t work because his friend owned no black paint

She is a curious case: soft to the point of saccharine, yet also shrewd and tenacious. She gets Winckelmann’s driven theorising, and David Garrick’s actor-manager flair, head cocked, lively gaze turned directly upon us. Indeed, a kind of broad theatricality is Kauffman’s own style. Sometimes this is a matter of casting – Emma, Lady Hamilton, all simpering sashay in white chiffon as the muse of comedy – and sometimes it is in the vaguely painted backdrops and props, like elements of a stage set. But mostly it is in the way her figures pose, point and gesture with all the subtlety of street signs.

Jesus, one hand to his chest, points directly upwards with the other: indeed, I am the Son of God. Quick, come this way, gestures the muse of painting in a self-mythologising portrait, while the muse of music tugs plaintively at Kauffman’s other hand. Women are at the centre of everything – her speciality – imploring, protecting, wrangling offspring, listening to poetry, or just waiting for the hero’s return. Penelope, by her loom, might have seemed properly melancholy had she not been rolling her eyes so loudly to heaven.

Kauffman was very close to Sir Joshua Reynolds, first RA president – her portrait of him is gentle, diaphanous, full of mutual affection. But their friendship was tinged with scandal, since he was almost 20 years older, and satirised by a fellow artist with a painting of a child on an old man’s knee. When the RA threatened to display it, Kauffman sent a formidable letter (it’s here). Respect my sex or return my pictures. She won.

If only her art was as defiant, instead of frictionlessly fashionable. But there are moments of truth among the neoclassical fancies. A female artist, mouth hanging slightly open, leans forward to draw the mighty Belvedere Torso. Another, brush in hand, seems to sweep a rainbow across the sky with a vigorous whoosh. Both have their sleeves rolled, getting down to business: telling us what it is like to be a woman painting in the late 18th century.

Anyone who thinks clothes are not integral to the history of art may consider the case of Madame X, currently on show in the riveting Sargent and Fashion at Tate Britain. There she stands, nose in air, one hand flexed impatiently on a table, making a public performance in (and partially out of) a staggering black dress. Black on black, form-fitting, stiff as alabaster, it is shockingly abrupt – a dress that structures the painting as much as her body.

We would hardly know Virginie Gautreau’s name without the frock and its image. For Sargent, clothes make both man and woman and very often the portrait itself. Liquid silk, sheeny velvet, Lady Agnew’s wisps of lavender chiffon, the dull glint of gold frogging, the sizzling sharpness of lemon-yellow satin: everything is depicted with a startling synaesthetic eloquence.

Sargent – flashy, glib, addicted to appearances, as fascinated by clothes as their wearers, the surfaces of his canvases sometimes as bejewelled as a House of Worth gown (several originals are included) – is the ideal subject for such a show.

It opens with the immense dirge of an opera cloak, as worn by Lady Sassoon in Sargent’s 1907 portrait, her complexion the rose of its flirtatiously revealed lining. To see them together, object and depiction, is to consider the way he (and she) gets shifting light into its deadly black folds. Her contemporary, Ena Wertheimer, is also overcoming a challenging garment, and you sense the artist’s delight in the way she rises cheerfully above her shiny white slip-dress.

Sargent can be swept up: Isa Boit with her conversational smile, buck teeth and double chin, all rude health in pink and black polka dots. Henry James described her as “brilliantly friendly… eternally juvenile”, exactly as she appears. But he can also be blank, skimming over dull men in suits. US President Woodrow Wilson: what an amazingly empty portrait.

The curating throws a fine emphasis on Sargent’s relationships with American dames and feckless English ladies. The wall texts are witty – of feathers and iridescent beetles: “the terrible toll fashion took on nature” – and stuffed with knowledge. Half of his sitters wore the newly fashionable black in the 1880s, and Sargent, visiting Monet, could not work during the trip because his friend owned no black paint.

Photographs show Sargent in rapid motion, fag in mouth, during sessions. He plays Percy Grainger and Ethel Smythe. When a foolish sitter arrives in the wrong colour, he drapes her in his own silk fabric. Sitters, it was reported, begin to dress after his pictures, and “when they buy a gown ask ‘Will it paint?’”.

Faced with true intellect, Sargent can catch it – the queer writer Vernon Lee; Ellen Terry in her beetle costume as Lady Macbeth. But he is surely more at home with vanity. Lord Ribblesdale rises 10 miles high in his riding coat and absurdly low-slung breeches; but a lifesize photograph shows the real man was more ridiculous.

Sargent gave them what they wanted – and what they gave him in return, which was sometimes little more than social guise and costume. “The coat is the picture”, he said of one painfully limp sitter. His own self-portrait of 1906 is fastidiously private: a closed face against the world. But by then he was the height of fashion, a public figure fit for cartoon. Witness Max Beerbohm’s marvellous caricature of Sargent hard at it, with two brushes for speed, knocking out the social portraits.

Star ratings (out of five)
Angelica Kauffman ★★★
Sargent and Fashion ★★★★