Kauffmann and Female Empowerment

This afternoon I’ve been thinking about Angelica Kauffmann’s painting, Self-Portrait Hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting (1791, shown left). I can relate to this painting quite well: during my first year and a half as an undergraduate, I couldn’t decide whether to major in music or art history. I play the piano and studied classical voice for several years. At the beginning of college I continually felt compelled to study vocal performance, music education or choral conducting. In some ways, I still wish that I had kept up with my classical singing, especially when I listen to singers like Renée Fleming or Patricia Petibon (the latter is a recent discovery – she’s fantastic!).

In the end, though, I decided to major in art history and minor in music. With only a minor in music, I felt like I could still learn and refine my singing skills but remain somewhat distant from the discipline. I’ve found that my enjoyment of music lessens if I focus on theory and technique too much; I end up overanalyzing musical scores and critiquing performances instead of just listening. However, my enjoyment and love for art (and art history!) doesn’t ever seem to go away, despite how much I learn or how critically I think. So, in the end, I art history was the best choice for me.

Kauffmann was an accomplished musician; she played the zither and clavichord. She also was said to have an extremely beautiful, agile singing voice. Kauffmann had to choose between music and art as a career, and she depicts this decision in her painting. Obviously, Painting won her over. It appears that Kauffmann’s career choice was influenced (at least in part) by a priest who convinced Kauffmann and her father that an operatic career on the stage would lead to a faithless, debased lifestyle.1 (On a side note, I wonder what Painting is pointing at in the distance, beyond the canvas of Kauffman’s painting. Great heights? Achievement? Music seems much more passive of a figure, being seated on the left.)

Not only do I love this painting because I relate to Kauffmann’s interest in music and art, but I also love the idea behind the painting’s composition. Here, Kauffmann is shown in an empowering position between the two arts: she has the ability to choose either career path. Instead of the many depictions in art that show women in helpless or subordinate positions, Kauffmann advertises “publicly her ability as an individual to choose.”2 Another painting by Kauffmann also hints at this same topic of female choice and empowerment: Venus Induces Helen to Fall in Love with Paris (1790, shown right) shows Helen contemplating the decision to fall in love. For Helen, love seems to be a conscientious choice and she has the ability to make that choice. What a dramatic departure this is from depictions of swooning women in art (see here and here and here), who are rendered as helpless subjects!

Do you know of other examples in art where a female figure is represented with agency or ability to choose? Or, do you know of any other examples of swooning and/or helpless women?

1 Frances A. Gerard, Angelica Kauffmann: A Biography (London: Ward and Downey, 1893), 18-21. Available online here. Gerard relates that a handsome, promising (male) musician was one of the individuals who actively tried to convince Kauffmann to study music. It is related that Kauffmann’s depiction of Orpheus in Orpheus Leading Eurydice out of Hades (located in a private collection) is a portrait of the handsome musician.

2 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 406.

  • Hels says:

    You wrote "I've found that my enjoyment of music lessens if I focus on theory and technique too much; I end up overanalyzing musical scores and critiquing performances instead of just listening." Isn't that the truth! About any scholarly area, I would assume; not just music.

    This isn't quite what you meant, but I have been writing about Charles Dickens. Arguably one of the finest writers in the English language, he was an absolute pig to his wife. After 10 live births, he found her stomach floppy and disgusting, and went after a slim young actress instead. But here is the kicker. He threw his wife out of the family home and never allowed the 10 children to see her again (while he was alive).

    Overanalysing your area of passion often spoils the sheer pleasure that can come to a less scholarly person.

  • M says:

    Wow! I may never think of Dickens the same again, Hels! That's really interesting.

    I wonder if I get especially analytical about music because I am a musician. Music is something personal to me, and my instrument (my vocal chords) is a physical part of my body. I physically touch piano keys when I play, and I turn the pages of the sheet music that I read. Music has been an integral part of my life since I was a young girl, so my emotional attachment is quite deep-seated.

    In contrast, I also didn't become very excited about art until I was a senior in high school. I also am removed from art to a degree, since I'm not an artist. I don't have that physical/tangible connection with art, like I do with music. Although I still have very personal and emotional experiences with art, I think I might be a wee bit more emotionally distanced, at least in comparison with music.

  • Dr. F says:


    Are you sure that you're analyzing this painting correctly? Is there textual evidence? It looks to me that the woman in red is Kauffmann herself. The woman in white could be a muse who directs her to painting.

    The fact that both the other women are looking at the woman in red makes me think that she is the young musician (like yourself) contemplating a different path.

    If you enlarge your image, it would appear that painting is pointing to the classical structure atop the hill.

    Hels: The less we know about the private lives of artists (including movie stars and rockers) the better. Their work is what counts.It is amazing that people whose lives are so messed up can produce sublime masterpieces.


  • M says:

    Hi Frank! Thanks for your comment! Your questions led me to do more research. The textbook sources that I have read have all described Kauffmann as the central figure, and I agree for several reasons. The central figure's features match with other self-portraits of Kauffmann (see this portrait from 1787 and this portrait from 1770-1775).

    It also makes sense that Kauffmann would be the central figure, because her composition is reminiscent of paintings depicting "The Choice of Hercules" subject matter (also called "The Judgment of Hercules"). In these depictions, Hercules is often the central figure in the painting; he is shown making a choice between personifications of Virtue and Pleasure. Two examples of such paintings are found by Poussin (The Choice of Hercules, collection at Stourhead in Wiltshire) and Annibale Carracci (The Choice of Hercules, c. 1596, Capodimonte Gallery in Naples). If anyone is interested, Wendy Wassyng Roworth has discussed this imagery of Hercules (and Kauffmann's portrait) here and here (see footnote #4).

    As I've studied these paintings of Hercules, I've noticed that the figure of Virtue is always pointing upward. I've become convinced that Kauffman's figure of Painting is pointing upward so that viewers of the painting would recognize Kauffmann's variation on the Hercules theme. On one hand, Virtue might be pointing upward to symbolize the nobility of virtue (and perhaps that could be embodied in temple in the background, although I'm not convinced that Painting is specifically pointing at that structure). Perhaps Kauffmann also wanted to visually emphasize that Painting is a more noble and virtuous endeavor; we know that Kauffmann was turned away from music based on the lifestyle held by musicians.

    Or, the upraised hand gesture might be harkening back to the "oratory gesture" that was used in ancient Roman art, to signify that a figure is speaking. An 18th century treatise on historical painting by Lord Shaftesbury, Notion of Historical Draught or The Judgment of Hercules describes Virtue as actively speaking to Hercules.

  • Dr. F says:


    I took another look and bow to your erudition. I'll try to stick to Giorgione.


  • M says:

    Nonsense! Please keep raising questions and issues, Frank. I love having the opportunity to reconsider ideas or research topics further. Your curiosity helps to make things interesting!

  • Val S. says:

    There is another clue identifying Music, and that is the musical score in her lap. I wonder if her scarlet dress is an indicator of a faithless life.

    I haven't thought of any depictions of female empowerment off hand, but I immediately thought of The Death of Sardanapalus (Delacroix) as an example of women having no choice in life – literally! http://tinyurl.com/66bjyr3
    For those who don't know the story, when he knew he was defeated, Sardanapalus had all his possessions destroyed, including his harem.

  • M says:

    Val S., I thought the same thing about the scarlet dress! Perhaps so.

    I like your example of the "Death of Sardanapalus." Delacroix's women do look pretty helpless and without choice in that painting. Their curvaceous, sensuous bodies look especially helpless in contrast to the musculature of the men.

    I like to discuss this painting when I lecture on Orientalist art. My students and I discuss different stereotypes that the West superimposed on the Orient and its people. Within the context of these comments, we could also say that the Orient (which is sometimes associated with female characteristics) was also "helpless" in escaping its definition as an "Other."

  • heidenkind says:

    One of my classmates wrote a paper about this painting in a seminar I took once. It really is one of Kauffmann's more interesting I think!

    One of the things she pointed out was that painting was a much more acceptable profession for a woman back in the day. Then (as now) being a musician meant constant traveling. I remember seeing a documentary about Hilary Hahn once where she said she spent a total of no more than a month at "home" in the entire course of a year! That makes it very difficult to have long-term relationships or children.

    Anyway, my classmate implied that the image wasn't one of female empowerment, but rather signaled Kauffmann's desire for conformity. I thought she was being a little harsh, so I'm glad to see you disagree. 🙂

  • M says:

    heidenkind: Your classmate has an interesting interpretation of this painting! I can see how Kauffman's decision to be a painter could tie to conformity. But, based on what you wrote, it does sound like your classmate was a bit harsh. At the very least, Kauffmann is emphasizing that she had the choice to conform, right? 😉

    By the way, I agree with you. I think this is one of the most interesting and striking paintings by Kauffmann.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Hi M! Fascinating post. Female empowerment is an interesting issue in art history. I think the rare examples of women artists in the Renaissance are an interesting example.

    Sofonisba Anguissola in particular included some very subtle iconographic markers which suggest much about her own musings on the role of women in 16C Italian society, let alone as artists.

    There was a landmark article on this in Renaissance Quarterly in 1994 by Professor Mary D Garrard, which 3PP currently has a detailed review of. Anguissola's layered meanings, in depictions of relative size, inclusion of key objects and even what the hands of her subjects are doing are remarkably telling, and far more advanced than many of her male counterparts.

    Kind Regards

  • Susan Benford says:

    One of my most beloved images of empowered woman is Artemisia Gentileschi's "Judith Beheading Holofernes". Not only have Judith and her servant, Abra, decapitated the evil Assyrian king, Holofernes, Judith seduced and outwitted him with "feminine wiles".

    To boot, Gentileschi has created her version of this Biblical tale as a direct contrast to the same theme by Caravaggio. No wallflower here!

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments! Both Anguissola and Gentileschi are great female artists. Along with this theme of choice, I love that Anguissola chose to depict herself behind a shield-like medallion (as seen in her Self-Portrait of c. 1556), in order to emphasize her modesty to the viewer.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.