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Zeuxis Selecting Models for Helen of Troy

Brown University, Providence


Angela Rosenthal notes the dilemma posed by this subject:

“Eighteenth-century humanism promoted a set of classical stories as models of artistic creation and prototypes fo artist’s self-identification. Retellings of the legendary stories of Zeuxis, Pygmalion, Apelles do not simply reveal the infrastructure of the creative act but define it in clearly gendered terms. Within these antique discourses, eighteenth-century artists could, and often did, reaffirm the status of the man as artist/subject and the woman as model/object. Facing such mythologies, a female artist confronted a problem of identification. By identifying too closely with the male artist and his creative potential, she ran the risk of denying what was perhaps her most important attribute, her gender, and therefore opening herself to attack for being sexually transgressive. But identification with the passive female model would seem to deny the woman artist her status as agent. It is the apparent impossibility of escaping this impasse that makes Kauffman’s painting so remarkable.

The painting tells the story of Zeuxis, who, in order to portray the world’s most beautiful women, chooses five becoming models from whom to distill an ideal synthesis. Kauffman shows Zeuxis in the act of anatomical study, inspecting one of the models as three others prepare for the master’s gaze. But one model, set behind the artist and in the right background, defies the patriarchal conventions of representation encoded in the narrative and in Zeuxis’s attentive gaze. Stepping behind the male artist, she takes up the artist’s brush and moves toward the empty canvas. The active model claims the canvas and in doing so seems to enact what Kauffman herself performs. The analogy is given substance by the inclusion on the fictive canvas of a signature: Angelica Kauffman pinx.”

Rosenthal, Angela. Angelica Kauffmann: Art and Sensibility (New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 2006), 4.

About the Artist

Born: Chur, Switzerland, 30 October 1741
Died: Rome, Died: 5 November 1807
Nationality: Swiss