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In this oval oil painting, an artist concentrates on drawing an ancient Roman statue. The artist here is an “allegory”, meaning she represents an idea rather than a person or character. In this case, she represents design – or drawing – one of the four “elements of art” detailed in art theory of the time . The other three elements are invention, composition and colour.

This painting alludes to one of the cornerstones of 18th-century academic training for artists: the study of proportion, scale and form based on figures from ancient Greece and Rome. In 18th-century Britain there was a prevalent view that ancient Greece and Rome were the height of civilised, intellectual society. Many artists of Kauffman’s era used identifiable classical architecture or statues to align their work with these cultures.

She’s drawing the Belvedere Torso, a sculpture that would have een recognisable to many audiences at the time this painting was made. The original sculpture (itself believed to be a copy of a Greek bronze) is in the Vatican Museum, and the Royal Academy has a cast of the figure in its collection.

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