Women's history month: Why the Royal Academy's female founders were painted out of the picture

Jessie Thompson

Throughout March, the Evening Standard is running a special series to mark Women’s History Month, covering everything from forgotten female heroes to the brilliant women of today.

When the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768, two of its 34 founding members were women. They helped make one of the country's most vital art institutions a reality - but their names have been relatively forgotten. Here, Helen Valentine, one of the RA's senior curators, explains the importance of their contribution.

Who were the RA’s female founders?

They were two female artists: Angelica Kauffman RA (1741 -1807) and Mary Moser RA (1744-1819).

What were their most significant achievements?

It is significant that both women were regarded so highly that they were among the 34 Founding Members of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768.

Angelica Kauffman was a child prodigy - from an early age, she was a member of academies in Florence, Rome and Venice. She spoke four languages and was a talented singer, and had a successful career in London and Rome painting portraits, history paintings, decorative works and landscapes. Many of her paintings were reproduced as decorative stipple engravings which spread her fame across Europe and were a good source of income.

She was commissioned to paint four roundels for the ceiling of the Royal Academy which are on view in the Front Hall of the RA, and when she moved back to Rome in 1782, she attracted commissions from an incredible array of clients including Tsar Paul I of Russia, Austrian Emperor Joseph II and Pope Pius VI. Her salon also was a meeting place for artists and writers such as Goethe. She had some celebrity status within her lifetime - a biography of life was published in 1788.

Mary Moser was one of the leading flower painters in Britain and had shown talent as an artist at an early age, winning prizes at the Royal Society of Arts at the age of 14. She was also the youngest of all the Founder Members at the age of 24. She was drawing mistress to the Royal Princess Elizabeth and Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III who gave her several royal commissions. When Queen Charlotte was given Frogmore House she commissioned Moser to decorate the room and create the illusion of an ‘arbour open to the skies’. This room survives today. Her work was exhibited at the RA, and she was the daughter of George Michael Moser, who was another founding member and the first Keeper of the RA Schools.

Why have they been forgotten?

They have suffered like many women artists from cultural misogyny. Moser in particular has been relegated to a ‘flower painter’ which was less highly regarded than a painter of portraits or history subjects. She did paint these - but few examples have survived.

​Kauffman’s reputation has suffered less but there is perhaps a concentration of her ‘softer’ decorative work. In the 18th century her reputation was extremely high and her funeral in Rome was attended by cultural elite and many aristocrats. A full account of the funeral was read out at a meeting of the General Assembly of Academicians in London.

Why do they deserve more recognition?

Both women were extremely accomplished and managed to negotiate their way through the masculine art world to great success. They were conscious of their own status and Kauffman in particular created many self-portraits in different guises to promote herself.

The Royal Academy elected no women until the 20th century, although Lady Elizabeth Butler was put forward on several occasions. This contributed to their loss of status, as if women artists were not good enough to be elected then possibly the original founder members were not so important.

How are you celebrating them this Women’s History Month?

The Royal Academy is celebrating International Women’s Day with a week-long series of events that explore ideas of feminist futures through art and architecture. This will include talks, panel discussions, tours and a concert inspired by revered female Royal Academicians Gillian Wearing, Sonia Boyce and Phyllida Barlow. Models and Militants: Women in the Life Room talk will uncover the story of women and life drawing and the changing attitudes towards the professional female artist. Elsewhere, Automated Environments: Feminist Futures will explore how architecture can help create socially aware cities that embrace the full gender spectrum in an age of robotisation.

And... three of Kauffman’s roundels in the ceiling of the Front Hall, just in time for International Women's Day.

Find out more about the Royal Academy's International Women's Day events here