Thomas W. Hodgkinson

The artist and the conman

The Times, February 2024

When Germaine Greer wrote a study of female artists, she called it The Obstacle Race. To achieve success, she argued, women had to overcome the career equivalent of rope ladders and monkey bars. For centuries, for instance, they were banned from live art classes, where they would have gazed on male flesh. Trouble was, the most respected art form was historical paintings, which often involved semi-naked men flexing their muscles heroically. So how were women supposed to pull these off, when they weren’t allowed to practice?

The Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman—soon to be the subject of a major solo show at the Royal Academy in London—is a rare example of one who army-crawled her way to recognition and beyond. Thanks to her smart business acumen, her flair for colour, and her eye for harmonious composition, which led some to hail her as “the female Raphael”, she rose to become the most successful European artist of the late 18th century. And this despite facing an early obstacle of staggering malignity, which threatened to derail her career completely.

On the cusp of breaking through, Kauffman was taken in by a conman calling himself Count Frederick de Horn, who tried to steal her money, separate her from her friends, ruin her reputation, and spirit her out of the country she had made her home.

The fact that De Horn pulled the wool over her eyes “seems so out of character,” says Annette Wickham, co-curator of the RA show. “In every other area of her life, Kauffman was incredibly astute in the way she conducted herself.” Born in the city of Chur in Switzerland, she had been taught to paint by her father, Joseph, who was also an artist. The girl soon outstripped the man and was hailed as a prodigy. Travelling in Italy, she cannily painted the rich and famous. The actor David Garrick. The art critic Johann Winckelmann.

Her subtle portraits convey a living sense of their subjects across the ages. In her picture of Garrick, for instance, the face is serene. Yet the way his fists grip the ear and top bar of his wooden chair, as he turns to the viewer, who regards him from behind, suggest an awareness of how precarious his position is at the top of his profession, and how hard he has to hold on. 

The same went for Kauffman. When she came to London in 1766 aged 25, she immediately sought out Joshua Reynolds, who was one of the best-respected painters in the country. The two artists got on famously and agreed to paint each other. Soon she earned a commission to paint the English queen herself. “Everything was going her way,” says Wickham. Everything, that is, until she met the mountebank. 

Throughout history, identity fraudsters have passed themselves off as nobility. De Horn’s stratagems came from the impostor playbook. Travelling everywhere in a carriage attended by footmen wearing splendid green livery, and talking airily of his wealth and extensive art collection, he cut a glamorous figure. A dramatic one, too. He was the victim of persecution in his native Sweden, he told Kauffman. His enemies falsely accused him of conspiring against the Swedish king. Wherever he went, he carried a phial of poison in his coat. 

One day, he turned up in a terrible state at her home in Golden Square. Pale and trembling, the count declared that he was about to be extradited, and threw himself on her mercy. “Only one hope is there of saving me, only one refuge is for me, in thy arms, my angel. Reach me thy hand as my wife.” This, according to an early biography of Kauffman, was how he spoke. “There is not a moment to lose. Either you make me your husband at once, or I am a lost man.” What else could Kauffman do, after such an appeal? Reader, she married him.

The knot was tied at St James’s Church in Piccadilly in September 1767. Yet soon enough, problems began to surface. Sex was off the cards, it was rumoured. A wound during military service had left de Horn de-horned. He quarrelled with her concerned father and forbade her friends from visiting her. Then—fantastically—the real Count Frederick de Horn arrived in London and presented himself at court. 

The authentic nobleman was astonished to be congratulated on his recent marriage to a talented artist. He knew nothing of the matter, he insisted. And so the truth—or versions of it—began to come out. The charlatan was a servant of his, or an illegitimate son, or both, who had stolen documents of his, and moved to another country, where he could carry out his imposture. He was a serial fraudster. He had gone under other names in other places. Buckle. Studerat. Rosenkranz. He was already married. His union with Kauffman was bigamy. 

Sensing that the game was up, the artist’s mythomaniac husband moved fast, demanding £500 as the price for leaving her alone. When she refused, he tried to kidnap her with the help of hired thugs. In the end, Kauffman coughed up. She paid him the reduced sum of £300 (which is the equivalent of about £40,000 today) to quit the country and never contact her again. These things the charlatan did. 

The mystery remains. How did Kauffman, so clued-up in other ways, let herself be duped? Either the count was very good at his game, or else, as Greer argued, Kauffman was fed up of being the subject of salacious rumours. Envious rivals refused to believe the attractive young woman could succeed unless she was sleeping her way to the top. At various times she was rumoured to have had affairs with Reynolds, the painters Nathaniel Dance and Henry Fuseli, and even the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. “She was a sex object,” said Greer. “They kept trying to talk about who she went to bed with, so she couldn’t be taken seriously.” She married de Horn “to get away from the gossip”.

Given the sketchiness of the sources, and this distance of time, it’s hard now to establish what really went down in 1767. Perhaps Kauffman herself, or more likely her father, exaggerated the affair to create a pantomime villain, beside whom she would seem saintly. Whatever the truth, she somehow survived the scandal—which is quite “surprising”, as Wickham says, “given the morals of the time”.

What we know is that Kauffman, who was a lifelong workaholic, threw herself into her art, and by a combination of graft and skill, achieved “enormous sales figures”, in the words of Wickham’s co-curator, Bettina Baumgartel. She earned so much money, primarily through her portraits of the rich, that Baumgartel estimates she became Europe’s “richest bourgeois woman who became wealthy from her labour alone”. In the 1780s, Kauffman was as widely known as any contemporary artist—largely thanks to reproductions of her designs, which appeared in middle-class homes, printed on plates and snuff-boxes, fans and fire-screens. An engraver declared in 1781, “The whole world is Angelica-mad.” In 1784, a journalist lamented that “No one is interested in anything except prints after Angelica Kauffman.”

Notwithstanding the gossip, we know that she was also respected by the majority of her fellow artists. When the RA was founded in 1768, Kauffman was one of only two women included among the 40 academicians. The fact that she was commissioned to paint four allegorical works for its premises (to this day, they adorn the RA’s entrance at Burlington House) is proof of her high standing.

In later life, she moved to Rome, where she befriended the polymath Goethe and held court at her own artistic salon. Meanwhile, she cemented her reputation for historical paintings, at which she excelled despite her enforced ignorance of the nude. To be sure, some critics sniped that her male figures look somewhat womanly. What’s more noticeable about her paintings, though, is her choice of subject matter, which shows a preference for women who took control of their lives, and became the heroines of their own stories. 

She was an example of this herself, and as such, according to Baumgartel, became “a role model for a free artistic existence as a woman”. The trauma of her first marriage stayed with her. When she tried to talk about it to a friend, years later, she became overwhelmed by emotion and was forced to break off. But she escaped it as fast as she could. When she remarried, embarking on a second marriage with the artist Antonia Zucchi, she insisted on a prenup. Highly unusual at the time, this ensured she retained control of her earnings. 

Angelica Kauffman died in 1807 at the age of 66. The sculptor Antonia Canova led the funeral procession through the streets of Rome to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. As had happened at the funeral of Raphael, two examples of her work were carried in triumph. Soon afterwards, a bust of Kauffman was placed in the august surroundings of the Pantheon, next to the bust of Raphael himself. 

A detailed account of the funeral was read aloud at a council of the RA in London. Its contents were transcribed in full in the minutes of the meeting. It was a mark of the great respect in which Kauffman was still held by the RA after so many years. 

Nevertheless, the RA’s record of including female artists has historically been poor. After Kauffman and Mary Moser had become the first two female academicians in 1768, there wasn’t another one until Laura Knight in 1936. Even then, it was “slow going”, Wickham confesses. The first female professors at the RA school were appointed in 2011. There wasn’t a female RA president until 2019.

As Baumgartel observes in the catalogue for the forthcoming show, it is “striking” that Kauffman, one of the most successful and best-loved artists of her time, “has had to wait over 250 years for a solo exhibition celebrating her work at the Royal Academy, despite her being one of the founding members of the institution”. For Kauffman, even after death, the obstacle race continued.