This highly expressive drawing relates to a composition known now only from a stipple engraving by Francisco Bartolozzi published in 1800. Angelica Kauffman had first treated the subject of The Death of Sylvia’s Stag from book 7 of Virgil’s Aeneid in 1777. The painting when exhibited at the Royal Academy was entitled Sylvia lamenting over the favourite stag, wounded by Ascanius’ and accompanied by a painting of another Virgilian subject, Dido. Kauffman has used a sheet of laid paper prepared with a brown, diluted wash, a medium that Kauffman used in similar preparatory studies such as the design for Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia now in Frankfurt. Kauffman used this prepared surface because it gave texture and bite for the chalk allowing for her to plot and arrange complex, multi-figural compositions with ease. The drawing is handled with remarkable fluency and assuredness, the confident chalk line captures the central figure of Sylvia, the stag lying in her lap and a trio of mourning attendants. The drawing shows one marked difference from the design engraved by Bartolozzi in 1800, to the left of the composition Kauffman includes two figures on a boldly architectural staircase, in the final print these have been replaced by yet more attendants. This sheet is a rare compositional study by Kauffman and points to her mastery of design, expression and gesture, the unusual subject-matter also underscores her ambition as a historical painter, one unafraid to tackle novel iconography.
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. 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.
In addition to her work as a portraitist, Kauffman was increasingly interested in working as a historical painter. The foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 gave the ideal platform for exhibiting historical works. The present drawing seems likely to have been made in preparation for the painting, now lost, that Kauffman showed at the Royal Academy in 1777. Paired with a depiction of Dido the works show two of the heroines of the Aeneid who, through their treatment by men, are the cause of long and bloody conflicts. Sylvia was the daughter of Tyrrheus ‘chief ranger to the Latian king’ who had reared her stag since birth. The tame animal was killed by Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, provoking war between the Trojans and Latium for the future site of Rome. In Dryden’s translation, Sylvia is described as petting, bathing and feeding the pet stag who, being too tame, did not run from the approaching Ascanius. Once shot, the wounded stag made its way home to Sylvia who ‘beats her breast, and cries aloud for succor from the clownish neighbourhood: the churls assemble.. their fury makes an instrument of war.’ Kauffman shows precisely this moment, Sylvia kneeling, grief etched upon her face, the pet stag lying in her lap. Kauffman’s decision to pair the composition with a depiction of Dido shows how gender inflected her engagement with history painting. Dido was the queen of Carthage who was abandoned by her lover Aeneas, an act which was the cause of the historic enmity between the Trojans and Carthaginians.
This pairing was not entirely without precedent, Claude had painted a pair of paintings for Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia and View of Carthage with Dido and Aeneas in 1676. The two paintings were prominently displayed in Palazzo Colonna until their sale to William Young Ottley in 1798 and Kauffman would undoubtedly have known them. Unlike Claude, Kauffman chooses not to show the unwitting Ascanius before he shoots the stag, she selects a more emotionally heightened moment, after the stag has expired in its owner’s lap. It offers a fascinating inversion of the male heroics of the Aeneid, capturing instead female anguish at senseless loss, as such Kauffman shows a scene in full sympathy with the contemporary cult of sensibility.
The drawing itself is a remarkably fluid statement by Kauffman, whose compositional drawings are rare. The assured chalk line shows how carefully Kauffman planned the action of her historical works, it also demonstrates how skilled she was as a designer. Kauffman we know employed life models to help refine her figure drawing and this study underscores her ability to communicate a sense of volume and conviction in the actions of her protagonists. Preserved in fine condition, this chalk drawing gives an important insight into both Kauffman’s working practices and her highly intelligent engagement with subject-matter.