Sappho Inspired by Love

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Angelica Kauffman, Sappho Inspired by Love, 1775

Angelica Kauffman was one of few women artists during the Neoclassical Era. Originally from Switzerland, she travelled throughout Italy and Austria as she grew up. Her knack for art came from her father, Joseph Johann Kauffman. It was his work as a portrait painter, which influenced her the most. In fact, Angelica often helped Joseph with his paintings for churches and portraits. She was deemed a child prodigy and “in Rome she was accepted into the Accademia di S Luca at the age of 23 and in London she was a founder-member of the Royal Academy” (Turner). It was through this exposure to the art world that she met Benjamin West in Florence, Italy in 1762. West, another influential man in her life, is one reason she moved to London in 1766. Despite the importance of men in her life, she was a strong independent woman and constantly pushed boundaries. While she made most of her money by painting portraits, she loved history paintings. Though many frowned upon women who created history paintings because there was prejudice against women studying anatomy, Kauffman “substituted statuary for the living male model” (Turner). One of her most famous History paintings is Cornelia Presenting Her Children as Her Treasures (Art Through the Ages). Kauffman’s painting “of a virtuous Roman mother who presented her children to a visitor as her jewels exemplifies the Enlightenment fasciation with classical antiquity and with classical art” (Art Through the Ages).

Kauffman had two main lovers in her lifetime. The first, an adventurer named Brandt, died in 1781. The second, Antonio Zucchi, was an artist who specialized in interior decoration. Zucchi’s work influenced her own, as she started created interior decoration pieces. Zucchi also took over Joseph’s role of taking care of his daughter’s finances. They travelled around Italy while Kauffmann completed some of her most famous works (Turner).

Sappho pictures Sappho, the famous poet, with cupid. There is a spotlight focusing on Sappho and Cupid. The painting is darker and heavier on the left where there is a tree and where Sappho is writing a poem. Kauffman uses vibrant colors, green and red shawls covering Sappho and Cupid, to bring life to her painting. The poem pictured on the tablet is one her most famous, Ode to Aphrodite. The lines on the tablet read, “So come again and deliver me from intolerable pain.” Fuseli said, “Her heroines are herself.” So, is this painting hinting towards her similarities with Sappho? Sappho’s poetry is known as lesbian erotica. The poem on the tablet is an ode to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. With Cupid at her side, the painting hints to Sappho’s love of Aphrodite. Cupid even appears to be consulting the poet as she writes.

While there is no knowledge of Kauffman engaging in love affairs with other women, this painting does promote women. Kauffman, a feminist before her times, exemplified what it was like to be a female artist in a man’s world. Though she was told she should not create history paintings because she was a woman, she still did. She was one of the most famous painters from the Neoclassical Era, man or woman, proving that social norms were not going to limit her artistic abilities.

Turner, Jane. The Dictionary of Art. New York: Grove Dictionaries Inc., 1996.

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