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Unconventional Heroines in Art

In every corner of the Regency world I always come across some amazing women. While doing research for my third book with Harlequin, The Duke’s Unexpected Bride (out next month), I ‘visited’ the 1819 Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts which at the time was based in Somerset House. During my research I came across two female artists who reached their peak at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries – Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser. They are perfect examples of the kind of unconventional historical heroines that fascinate me.

My own heroine, Sophie, loves painting but is well aware of her limitations when she enters the amazing exhibition room where the likes of Turner, Constable, Reynolds and other British greats exhibited. She is content merely to be inspired and to be given the opportunity to paint and to buy her art supplies at the famous Cheapside art store, Reeves.

The Duke of Harcourt takes Sophie ‘backstage’ to the Royal Academy Council Chamber in order to show her Kauffman’s famous allegorical ceiling paintings. Sophie however, manages to find her way even further backstage where Academy members exhibit their nude paintings away from public (and female) eyes. I was using a little artistic license here – there were indeed rooms where Academy members could sketch nude models and where a young woman like Sophie (even women like Kauffman and Moser) were not accepted, at least publicly.

This distinction is made abundantly clear in the famous painting by Zoffany which shows the 168 Academy members observing male nude models – the only two Academy members missing ‘in person’ were founding members Kaufman and Moser (the two were also the only female members of the Academy until 1861)! Zoffany at least gave them a presence by adding portraits of them on the wall on the right, looking down on the male models. Here is a section of that painting:

I’m not a great fan of artists from this era other than Turner (and I have to admit Reynolds has a special gift with portraits) but I found the story of the rise of these two female artists fascinating – both had artist/artisan fathers who taught and promoted their girls’ talents very early on (Mozart style) and far from being excluded by the male environment, they were highly regarded at the time (Kauffman had Reynolds as a personal champion). Kauffman’s story is particularly exciting – she travelled all over Europe, was invited to England by the English Ambassador’s wife in Rome, was conned into marriage by a scoundrel, whom she promptly left, and when he died she married a Venetian artist and continued to travel and receive commissions from the high and mighty.

In my own story, The Duke’s Unexpected Bride, Sophie is ambiguous about her talents – she is acutely visual and painting is an important part of how she sees and interacts with the world but she has no great ambitions and no dramatic conviction in her skills. I think this would have been the case with many creative women of the time – unless their talent overpowered them or they grew up in a highly artistic or literary environment women of moderate or even above moderate skills were often willing to regard themselves as mere amateurs. Their best hope was to find someone who saw this additional aspect to their character as positive rather than negative – this is one reason Sophie is drawn to Max.

Here is the scene where they discuss Sophie’s artistic talent:

‘I know you would prefer me without all the nonsense about the painting.’

‘I don’t know what you would be like without the painting. It’s not just something you do, it’s how you see the world.’

Sophie’s eyes widened.

‘No one has ever said that to me before.’

‘Is that good or bad?’

‘I…good, I think. It’s like those dreams where you are going about and suddenly realise you are only in your petticoats, you know?’

Max threw back his head and laughed.

‘No, I don’t. Not petticoats.’

‘Well, not petticoats, but you know what I mean. Finding yourself exposed.’

‘That doesn’t sound very enjoyable, then, and that is not what I meant to do. It was just a thought. Why did you think it was good, then?’

‘Because it means you see me.’

His smile faded slightly as he looked at her, but he kept his voice light.

‘Right in front of me. Hard to miss.’

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