There is a melancholy to cut flowers. You can sense it in the vase of forgotten roses languishing on a dining table or the wilting carnations overlooked on a desk. They bloom quickly and die continually, their exuberant illusion of life rudely dispelled over the course of a week. Painters, of course, have always known this, so often capturing that moment of overripeness, the fulsome, florid, blowsy display that comes just before the decay. The 18th-century British artist Mary Moser certainly knew it. At the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, her Flowers in a Vase, Which Stands on a Ledge (undated) is prosaically titled but remarkably painted: a Grecian urn groaning with its load of creamy daffodils, riotous red tulips, pinkish clematis and drooping blue sprigs of scilla. Dying anemones and curling marigolds are scattered at its base, like flowers cast at a grave. There is a whiff of death about the image, too, emanating like the faintly fetid, over-sweet scent that flowers begin to emit towards their end. It is a characteristically accomplished work by Moser, the watercolour made luminous by the gum arabic binder. Each flower is precisely delineated, the entire effect deliberate, beautiful and morbid at once.
Born in 1744, Moser was the pre-eminent flower painter of her age. It might seem easy to dismiss floral painting as the demure pastime of daubing women, but Moser’s work followed in the tradition of the serious botanical artistry of Richard Earlom, Thomas Green and Simon Verelst. Floral work, at the interface of textile production, interior design and ornament, was a test of skill. In the mid 1790s, Queen Charlotte commissioned Moser to decorate a chamber
at Frogmore House in Windsor – a major project to which she devoted herself with glorious abandon, fashioning it in the style of an open garden with elaborate floral wall panels and ceiling motifs. It is curious, then, that Moser should be largely forgotten by art history. She was gifted, her work was popular – and she played a crucial role in the story of British art as one of the 34 original founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA).
The RA was established in 1768 as a school formally dedicated to the professional training of artists. Moser’s father, George Michael Moser, a Swiss-born gold chaser and painter in enamel, was appointed the first Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools. The paternal connection was useful, but it’s likely that Moser’s reputation as a brilliant botanical painter merited her own membership. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president, noted that she had distinguished herself by ‘the admirable manner in which she composes pieces of flowers’.
Moser and her contemporary, Angelica Kauffman, were the only two women admitted to the RA’s exclusive ranks for over a century. Even then, their membership was only partial and their engagement limited, apparently for reasons of propriety. It is their two signatures which were, according to one nauseating commentator, ‘written more delicately than the rest’ in the original petition to the King, supporting the establishment of a ‘Royal Academy for Painting and Sculpture’.
The German painter, Johan Zoffany, coyly depicts Kauffman and Moser in his deliciously affected portrait of The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771–72). The painting is a wryly observed class photograph: the various gentlemen members crowded into a life drawing class, distracted and chattering. In amidst the posers and painters, the backroom clutter of plaster casts and packing cases, are the faces of Moser and Kauffman, represented as two half-finished portraits, hanging on a drab back wall.
The portraits-within-a-portrait device makes for the one awry note in a brilliantly composed painting. But it was a strategy that allowed Zoffany to acknowledge the significance of the two women while reflecting the mores of the 18th-century culture that prohibited them from participating in life-drawing classes as freely as their peers. He conjures the bonhomie of the gentleman artists with affectionate detail. Reynolds presides over the scene, gesturing expansively with one hand, while clutching an ear trumpet with another. The society portraitist, Richard Cosway – an infamous dandy, decked out in a green frock coat and propped up on an outstretched cane – poses in the right-hand foreground. At the rear left is Tan-Che-Qua, a Chinese artist who happened to be travelling through London at the time of the painting: his domed Mandarin cap bobs amid the crowd as he peers at proceedings with interest. And then there is Zoffany himself: sat at ease in the bottom left corner, palette in hand, gazing out frankly to the viewer. Moser and Kauffman, by contrast, feel hastily appended, their faces watchful and sober. The only other representation of a woman in the image is that of a nude plaster cast, carelessly discarded under a packing box in the lower right foreground. Her body is, tellingly, skewered beneath Cosway’s cane.
Zoffany’s painting only tacitly registers the seriousness of the exclusion of women from professional art circles. Proficiency in the drawing of the male nude was such an essential element of an artist’s training that the restrictions faced by female painters placed them at an enormous disadvantage, often reducing
them to copying copies. Kauffman herself seems to have reflected on this dilemma with some sanguinity in one of her own paintings (commissioned, ironically, for the RA’s Council Room). Titled Design (1778–80), it depicts an artist at work, sleeves rolled up, paper strewn at her feet, a porte-crayon in hand as she draws intently from a copy of the Belvedere Torso. It’s telling that the artist bears no small resemblance to Kauffman herself: she was an attentive self-portraitist, out of necessity rather than narcissism. It makes sense that the strictly delimited conditions within which female artists worked might shape their practice. In Kauffman’s case, it clearly served to produce a body of work often concerned with self-representation and allegories of artistic creation.
Kauffman was born in Switzerland in 1741 to an artist father. An extant self-portrait, apparently produced at the tender age of 13, attests to her prodigious talent. By 16, she was flooded with commissions. Travelling to Florence with her father, she was granted a private room in the Uffizi so that she might copy from the collection in peace. One of her self-portraits hangs there still. When she arrived in London, aged 25, she was rapturously received by the cognoscenti. A poem in the Public Advertiser of 1767 announced the arrival of the ‘celebrated Angelica’ who could ‘draw in vivid tints th’ illustrious race’. But Kauffman’s own ambitions lay less in lucrative society portraiture than in the realms of myth and allegory. She was unencumbered by her sex, aspiring to the most elevated tradition of them all: history painting.
What’s curious about Kauffman’s rendering of this genre is her sense of the domestic realities contained within grand histories. Her work returns repeatedly to Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi. When she paints Coriolanus, it is with meticulous attention to his entreating mother Venturia and wife Volumnia, fallen to their knees. The artist’s Cleopatra, Andromache and Hecuba weep for their departed heroes, but Kauffman attributes to each woman their own emotional life. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was a close friend, noted in Kauffman’s work a ‘soft, intellectual melancholy’. It might be tempting to attribute that melancholia to a particularly feminine sensibility. (It’s true that a romantic scandal – Kauffman had been tricked into marriage by a handsome footman fraudulently posing as a Swedish prince – lent her an air of tragic womanhood.) But perhaps the seriousness of Kauffman’s work was simply born of patient study and reflection.
Beyond the melee of the RA and its elbowing gentleman artists, Kauffman worked quietly. Her work is often simple and supplicating. The self-portrait of c.1770–75 that hangs in London’s National Gallery presents her in loose robes, classical in style rather than fussily fashionable, arms free to move as she sketches at the portfolio propped on her knee. She is half-turned to the viewer, peaceably meeting our gaze with lucent eyes, one hand resting at her chest with a finger pointing to her heart, the other capably clasping the charcoal, ready to set to work.
Kauffman eventually retired to Rome, slipping from view and painting only intermittently. When she died in 1807, at the age of 66, the sculptor Antonio Canova directed the funeral, leading the artists of the Academy of St Luke in procession, holding aloft, as at the burial of Raphael, her best works. Moser married in 1793 and ceased to take commissions, exhibiting only occasionally. The RA exhibition records list a flower piece entered for the 1797 show and, finally, a figure in 1803, submitted under her married name, Mary Lloyd. That year, the story goes, her name was cast in the ballot for the election of a new RA president, intended perhaps as a cruel joke – but perhaps not. The vote was disregarded and Benjamin West was duly elected. Moser died in 1819 at the age of 74. It would take until 1936 for the next woman – Laura Knight – to be elected as a full member of the RA. Some artists fall out of our favour, their brilliant works waning from memory as quickly as cut flowers. In this, the 250th anniversary of the RA, we might remember Moser and Kauffman again.
Main image: Johan Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771–72, oil on canvas, 1×1.5 m. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Wikimedia Commons
Shahidha Bari teaches visual culture and philosophy at Queen Mary University of London, UK, and she is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s arts and ideas programme, Free Thinking. Her book, Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes is out next year.