Explore Angelica Kauffman's painting, 'Design'

By Royal Academy of Arts

Design (1778/1780) by Angelica KauffmanRoyal Academy of Arts

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 18th century. 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.

The figure sits at the base of two Roman columns. 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.

In the background is a huge sky and a faint hint of mountainous shapes: wild, untamed nature. It's a sharp contrast to all the refined, high-minded culture in the foreground of the painting.

Though it might not look like a very practical outfit, she’s wearing “working clothes”. The writer Marina Warner said of Kauffman’s four allegories, “They're women in action, working on their art.”

She’s drawing the Belvedere Torso, a sculpture that would have been 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.

From the Renaissance through to the early 19th century, it was considered essential training for male artists to practice drawing casts of classical statues, before moving on to real naked people in life drawing classes. For women, however, it was considered improper to study naked bodies in life drawing classes, so they only drew from sculptures.

Kauffman was actually an exception in this case: she was wealthy enough to hire her own models (rather than drawing at an academy) and so could do unofficial life drawing of partly draped men. But it was still rare for a woman to draw a male body – even an antique torso. Kauffman is being doubly radical here: she has painted a woman drawing a male body, which Kauffman herself has painted.

Kauffman painted strong imposing female bodies inspired by art from the Italian Renaissance. In particular, it’s thought she would have been influenced by figures from fellow female artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings, or Michelangelo’s sibyls in the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, which Kauffman would have seen and studied in Rome.

Design is currently hanging in the RA's Collection Gallery, which you can visit for free, or you can take a guided tour online.

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