‘For the Marchesa de Prie of Turin a picture; height 5 spans 9 ½ width 4 spans 7 ½ with figures of 3 ½ spans representing Abraham telling Hagar to leave with Ishmael, the son paid for on 12th June. 1793. 150 Zecchini.’
Antonio Zucchi, Angelica Kauffman’s Memorandum Book
This important history painting by Angelica Kauffman was commissioned in 1792 by the Turinese aristocrat Polissena Turinetti di Priero, it is therefore a rare example of Kauffman’s work commissioned by a female patron. Largely unknown in modern scholarship, the painting is a compelling essay in Kauffman’s mature neo-classical style and unusual in showing Kauffman tackling a Biblical subject. Preserved in exceptional condition, the painting offers valuable evidence for Kauffman’s sophisticated patronage within Europe.
By 1792 Kauffman was one of the leading painters in Europe, she had achieved considerable success in Britain, exhibiting extensively at the Royal Academy of which she was a founder member. Kauffman had been born in Chur, Switzerland, the only child of the Austrian painter Johann Joseph Kauffman. In 1742 Kauffman’s father moved his family to Italy where, her early biographers record that she rapidly distinguished herself as a prodigy of both music and art. Kauffman decided to pursue a career as a painter and undertook a formal Grand Tour of Italy in 1759 before settling in Rome in 1763. There she was introduced into a circle of British neo-classical painters including Gavin Hamilton, Nathaniel Dance and Benjamin West. These contacts undoubtedly influenced her aspiration to create history paintings of classical, mythological and religious subjects, a rare ambition for a female artist. Encouraged by her contacts with Anglo-Saxon painters, Kauffman travelled to London in 1766 where she met and was befriended by Joshua Reynolds who became instrumental in promoting her career. In London she established a profitable and celebrated portrait practice working for a fashionable clientele and providing decorative panels for neo-classical interiors. But, as Wendy Wassyng Roworth has observed: ‘Kauffman was not able to achieve fully her high aspiration to produce large-scale history paintings.’
In 1782 Kauffman retuned to Rome after marrying the Italian decorative painter Antonio Zucchi, who yielded his own career to manage his spouse’s finances. Economics partly motivated their move, Meng’s recent death and Batoni’s slowing career were to position Kauffman as Rome’s dominant portraitist, decisively secured by the 1783 commission to paint the Neapolitan royal family. Moreover, the explosion of the Grand Tour among the nobility of northern and eastern Europe opened vast new markets for the multilingual painter. Kauffman and Zucchi occupied grand quarters on via Sistina, formerly the studio of Mengs, at the top of the Spanish Steps. Kauffman therefore cast herself as the prime heir to the classicising tradition of Roman painting. But most importantly the return to Rome situated Kauffman at the creative centre of Europe in close proximity to the greatest collections of antiquities and old master paintings as well as a thriving, international community of painters. Re-established in Rome she could finally execute the ambitious historical compositions that she had been contemplating since the 1760s. With this in mind, Kauffman not only assembled an important collection of antiquities and modern paintings in her studio, but organised her well-known weekly conversazioni. These semi-public events brought together the cosmopolitan literary and artistic figures of late Settecento Rome, something that impacted on the expanding erudition of Kauffman’s late work. Kauffman’s return to Italy was celebrated in verse by Ippolito Pindemonte in his epistle Alla Signora Angelica Kauffmann dipintrice celeberrima a Roma, which he published under the name Polidete Melpomenio. The poem describes how Minerva led Kauffman back to Rome to be a history painter.
The present canvas was painted in Rome in 1792. In her studio-book, kept by Zucchi, the present painting is described as:
‘For the Marchesa de Prie of Turin a picture; height 5 spans 91/2 width 4 spans 7 ½ with figures of 3 ½ spans representing Abraham telling Hagar to leave with Ishmael, the son paid for on 12th June. 1793. 150 Zecchini.’
Polissena Turinetti di Priero was married to Giovanni Antonio Francesco Turinetti di Priero, a cultured Turinese aristocrat. Turinetti di Priero was an early patron of the great Italian dramatist Vittorio Alfieri, a major collector of prints and supporter of numerous artists. She ordered the canvas from Kauffman in 1793 relying upon her agent in Rome, the Piedmontese architect Bartolomeo Cavalleri to co-ordinate the commission. We know that Polissena was an active patron and promoter of Kauffman’s works. In July 1793, shortly after the completion of the present painting, she acquired a plaster copy of Angelica Kauffman’s bust by the Irish sculptor Christopher Hewetson through Bartolomeo Cavalleri and even asked Cavalleri to consult Kauffman on the best way to pack and transport works of art back to Turin. It is significant to note that her correspondence proves that it was Polissena Turinetti di Priero who was actively engaged in commissioning Kauffman’s work, not her husband or agent.
Polissena Turinetti di Priero was an outspoken critic of the French influence on the government of Savoy and she lived in exile in Florence from 1794. By this date, Florence had become a centre for exiles from across the Italian peninsular, particularly for French citizens who left Rome following the murder of the French diplomat, Nicolas de Basseville in 1793. Amongst the cultured circle of artists and writers who made it their home was Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern, the widow of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, her lover Alfieri and the painter François-Xavier Fabre. Kauffman we know was close to this circle completing a portrait of the poet Fortunata Sulgher Fantastici in 1792. Polissena Turinetti di Priero’s correspondence proves her to have been an unusually active participant in the intellectual world of the city suggesting that her patronage of Kauffman included a strong influence on the iconography of this painting.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is one that would have immediately appealed to a female exile. Although at the date of commission Polissena was still based in Turin, following the turbulence of the French Revolution, the stability of Savoy must have felt in jeopardy. The Biblical story, told in the Book of Genesis relates that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, jealous of Hagar, persuaded Abraham to cast her and Ishmael out into the desert after the teenage Ishmael was caught mocking Sarah’s son, Isaac. Kauffman casts Hagar as the heroine of a carefully composed visual tragedy. Playing with the convention of depictions of Hercules between Vice and Virtue, Kauffman places the repentant Ishmael at the centre of the picture clinging to Abraham, who is shown in profile, holding his son’s hand and pointing out into the wilderness, whilst being led away by the noble Hagar. Behind Abraham, cast into shadow, Kauffman includes Sarah and Isaac. Kauffman shows Hagar resignedly leaving for the wilderness of Beersheba clutching a vessel filled with water, her face cast up to heaven in anticipation of her eventual deliverance. Kauffman’s canvas is a rare celebration of a Biblical heroin entering exile.
A Biblical subject gave Kauffman an unusual opportunity to explore certain formal conventions established by earlier painters. The costumes, style and approach to the composition recall Kauffman’s interest in a specific lineage of Roman painting from Raphael, through Guido Reni to Anton Raphael Mengs. As such the finished painting is an unusually ambitious historical work by Kauffman. Kauffman never outlined a theoretical position in print. However, the artist’s biographer de Rossi, described the artist as ‘la Pittrice delle Grazie’. In eighteenth-century terms, grace embodied the reason, erudition, judgment, and balance of her painting, aspects reinforced by her rational, learned, and virtuous personality. What makes Abraham driving Hagar and Ishmael into the Desert so remarkable is that it shows Kauffman reaching beyond her standard vocabulary of gracefulness to produce an image of Biblical grandeur.
- Lady Victoria Manners and G. C. Williamson, Angelica Kauffman RA. Her Life and Works, London, 1924, p.162.
- Giovanni Gherardo De Rossi, Vita di Angelica Kauffmann Pittrice, Florence, 1810, pp.16-17.
- Wendy Wassyng Roworth, ‘Between ‘Old Tiber’ and ‘Envious Thames’: The Angelica Kauffman Connection’, in eds. David Marshall, Susan Russell and Karin Wolfe, Roma Britannica: Art Patronage and Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century Rome, London, 2011, p.294.
- Wendy Wassyng Roworth, ‘The Residence of the Arts’: Angelica Kauffman’s place in Rome’, in eds. Paula Findlen, Wendy Wassyng Roworth and Catherine M. Sama, Italy’s Eighteenth Century, Stanford, 2009, pp.151-171.
- Alberto Turinetti di Priero, La prigioniera di Fenestrelle. Note su Giovanni Antonio e Polissena Turinetti del Priero, in ‘Studi piemontesi’, XXIX, No. 2, 2000, pp. 597-61.
- Laura Facchin, Bartolomeo Cavalleri agente dell’aristocrazia sabauda a Roma, in 'Rivista della Biblioteca di Storia e Cultura del Piemonte Giuseppe Grosso', VII, 2004, pp.9-43.
- M. D’Azeglio, I miei ricordi, XI, Florence, 1883, pp. 50,51,54.
- Giovanni Gherardo de Rossi writing in Memorie per le belle Arti, April 1785, p.LIV.