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.


Intro to Architecture: Greek Capitals

Someone requested that I write a few introductory posts on architecture, and I am more than happy to comply! I thought that it would be fun to start with the architectural orders that were popular in ancient Greece. (I thought about waiting to write this post until I reached this same chronological point in my intro/survey posts, but I’m too excited to wait. So, sorry for the anachronism. Just pretend that the architectural posts are separate from the other survey posts.)

The three Greek architectural orders are called Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These orders are easily defined by a key characteristics, namely the capitals (decorative heads) at the tops of the columns. There are several other architectural features which define these three orders (and there also are variants within these orders, as you can see in the drawing on the right), but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone. For now, we’ll just focus on the capitals of these basic columns.

As you can see from the pictures above, the Doric capital essentially is split into two simple sections. In contrast, the Ionic capital is decorated with large volute scrolls and the ornate Corinthian capital is decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls. If you want to see some other examples of these capitals (and some other awesome capitals in general), click here and here.

Throughout history, the Greek architectural style has been adopted and revived by many other cultures. The Romans quickly adopted the Greek architectural style (really, they borrowed tons of their artistic ideas from the Greeks), and the term “Classical style” can refer to either Greek or Roman art. However, Romans put a twist to Greek design by sometimes using a superimposed order on buildings which had more than one story – each of the successive stories are decorated with a different order (this is a deviation from the Greeks, who consistently would use one order throughout a whole building). For example, you can see a superimposed order on the outside of the Colosseum (Rome, 70-80 AD). The Doric order is on the bottom level, the Ionic is on the middle level, and the Corinthian is on the top:

You can also see another drawing of the Colosseum orders here
(Note: the fourth level of the Colosseum also is decorated with Corinthian capitals – but these capitals are atop pilasters instead of columns).

The Greek/Classical style has been revived many other times throughout history. Due to the excavation/discovery of Pompeii in 1748, Europeans became enamored with the Classical style once again – which led to the popular Neoclassical movement. Neoclassical architecture can be seen all over America and Europe. In America, the classical style is often used for civic buildings (which makes sense, because the Founding Fathers took part in this Neoclassical revival – they were influenced by the ideal of the Roman Republic). Here are a couple of Neoclassical examples:

William Wilkins (architect), Downing College, Cambridge (1807-21)

Note the large Ionic columns that decorate the porch

Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia (1770-1806)
Jefferson used Doric columns for the porch of his home

Jacques-Germain Soufflot, the Panthéon (Ste.-Geneviève),
Paris, 1755-1792
See the large Corinthian columns?

So, where have you most recently seen some columns with Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian capitals? I most recently saw Corinthian columns on this iron pergola:

Pergola, Historic Pioneer Square, Seattle (first built 1909)


The Cyclical Nature of Art

When I was in college, one of my professors explained her theory that art is cyclical in nature. Over the centuries, there are certain themes and styles in art that keep emerging and fading in popularity. I have often thought about this theory in regards to the Classical and Baroque styles. Although this theory can apply to different types of art, I am in the mood for looking at sculpture, so I’ll only mostly use sculptural examples.

In early Greece, the serene, harmonious Classical style pervaded the artistic scene:

Polykleitos, “Spear-bearer” (Doryphoros), original dated c. 450-440 BC.

However, a short time later, the calm Classical style was disrupted by a taste for more dramatic, diagonal compositions in the Hellenistic period. In addition, relief sculptures were carved more deeply (some sculptures were practically in-the-round, almost jumping off of the relief wall) so that intense shadows could be cast:

Athena Battling Alkyoneos, Detail of the Gigantomachy Freize from the Altar of Zeus (Pergamon, Turkey, c. 175 BC).

The cycle between serenity and drama began again centuries later, when the Classical style became revived during the Renaissance:

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04

And only a century later, the Baroque period began as the artistic scene once again favored diagonal, dramatic compositions and subject matter:

Bernini, David, 1623

With the discovery of Pompeii in 1748, the interest in Classicism began the cycle all over again. This interest brought about the Neoclassical movement:

Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as Venus, 1808

The Romantic movement began about the same time and can be interpreted as a continuation of this cycle. In a way, the Romantics reacted against Neoclassicism by favoring drama and emotion over the serenity. This painting by Géricault focuses on dramatic subject matter by depicting a real-life event of shipwrecked passengers that were on the boat “Medusa.” A shortage of lifeboats caused 150 passengers to build a raft, and survivors resorted to cannibalism in order to stay alive on the open sea. (You can read more of the story here.) Can you see how this subject matter is dramatic? To heighten the drama, Gericault depicted an emotional moment when the survivors spot their rescue ship in the distance. Géricault even follows the same dramatic diagonal compositions that were favored in earlier dramatic styles:

Géricault, Raft of the “Medusa”, 1818-19

Since the Neoclassical/Romantic periods, the artistic continuum really hasn’t seen another revival of the serene/dramatic styles. There have been some slight interest in traditional subject matter, such as the Regionalism movement (think of American Gothic). I guess Regionalism could be considered a continuation of serenity and tradition, if one is willing to categorize abstractionism (the style the Regionalists rejected) as dramatic. Hmm.

I’m curious to see if art will ever return back to this cycle. Since the 19th and 20th centuries, art has just exploded into different types of media and styles. Have we left traditional cycles altogether? It is interesting to think about what art will be like in a hundred years or so.

What do you think about the future of art? Have you observed any other types of artistic cycles besides this one?


Email Subscription



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.