Of Women: Visions of femininity


For centuries, artists have been captivated by the female form. From the exaggerated bodies of Neolithic fertility figurines to Renaissance heroines, the female body is a constant thread in the history of art. In daily life, people select clothing and accessories to act out a particular role or version of themselves. The women in these portraits are no different: to those who observe, their costumes are chosen to signify their wealth and status, national identity, or even their mythical alter egos.

With this in mind, we are prompted to ask: who is being looked at, and by whom? In 1972, art historian John Berger wrote on the subject: ‘One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’1 Elegant and finely rendered, women are nonetheless objects of our gaze. Two artists — Angelica Kauffmann and George Romney — present a theatrical vision of femininity. Adopting costume and props of the stage, these images offer heightened, yet distinct, views of women.

Angelica Kauffmann ‘The deserted Costanza’

Angelica Kauffmann, Italy/England/Switzerland/Austria 1741-1807 / The deserted Costanza c.1783-84 / Oil on canvas / 83.2 x 65cm / Gift of The Hon. (Sir) James R. Dickson MLA 1900 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Of the paintings highlighted, only one was created by a woman — The deserted Costanza c.1783–84 (illustrated) by Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann. Kauffmann is among the few female masters whose name and works have made their mark in European art history. Trained by her father from an early age, she was one of two female founding members of the Royal Academy London in 1768. She lived in a number of major European art centres, including Milan, Florence, Rome, Venice and finally London, where she was admired for her great talent, particularly in portraiture.

The deserted Costanza illustrates the opening scene from Pietro Metastasio’s eighteenth century libretto for Joseph Haydn’s operetta, L’isola disabitata. In the painting we see the soprano, Costanza, overcome with grief after discovering her husband has abandoned her. Indeed, Kauffmann’s painting adopts the operatic drama of its source text. Constanza’s body appears limp and heavy; her eyes roll back dramatically, looking far beyond the frame. Arms outstretched, she carves her testimony on a rock with a broken sword.

Kauffman’s image is undeniably theatrical, and perhaps borders on the rhetoric of female ‘hysteria’. However, rather than a realistic portrait of womanhood, the painting is an exercise in performance. Through props, costume and gesture, the female figure performs her role as grieving wife. In this light, we can see the scene as a knowing act: the soprano plays out her sorrow and her gender to heightened extremes.

George Romney ‘Mrs Yates as the Tragic Muse, Melpomene’

George Romney, England 1734-1802 / Mrs Yates as the Tragic Muse, Melpomene 1771 / Oil on canvas / 238 x 151.5cm / Gift of Lady Trout 1988 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

George Romney wields theatricality to a different effect in his neoclassical rendering Mrs Yates as the Tragic Muse, Melpomene 1771 (illustrated). This portrait, commissioned by the leading tragedienne of the day, Mary Ann Yates (1728–87), eschews the high drama of Kauffmann’s Costanza for a pale, austere depiction of a mythological muse. Mrs Yates was a successful figure in Georgian theatre who was nearly 20 years into her acting career at the time of this portrait. She was well known for her roles as Shakespearian heroines, but here she adopts the guise of the Greek Muse of Tragedy, Melpomene. Shown in three-quarter profile, Mrs Yates’s gaze is fixed beyond her audience as she clasps a small dagger (one of Melpomene’s attributes) in her right hand. She is both resplendent and calm in her neoclassical garb, apparently in control of her role as she adopts the contrapposto pose of a classical sculpture rather than the fluid, emotional gesture one might expect from an actress.

Romney was one of the most successful portraitists of the late eighteenth-century, and his work is found in significant collections across the globe. His sitters, who were predominantly female, were often leading social figures including several actresses. While both Kauffmann’s evocation of Costanza and Romney’s portrait of Mrs Yates depict dramatisations of a fanciful character, the latter contains a second layer. Mrs Yates not only plays the role of mythic muse but also performs herself. In Romney’s portrait, she enacts a stately, almost ethereal, version of herself, far removed from the frivolous reputation of actresses in the eighteenth century.

Pippa Milne is former Associate Curator, International Art, QAGOMA and now Senior Curator, Monash Gallery of Art.
Sophie Rose is former Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA.

1 John Berger and Michael Dibb, Ways of Seeing, Penguin, London, 1972, p.47.

Featured image detail: Angelica Kauffmann’s The deserted Costanza c.1783-84