New to the Ackland: A Design Sketch by Angelica Kauffmann

Posted on

A woman kneels on the ground with the head of her dead pet stag in her lap

This recent acquisition, Death of Sylvia’s Stag, represents a rare design sketch, a “primo pensiero” or “first thought” composition for a now-lost painting that Swiss-born, Italian-trained artist Angelica Kauffmann exhibited at the 1777 London Royal Academy exhibition. A subject derived from book 7 of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, the scene portrays Sylvia, the daughter of the chief herdsman of King Latinus’ flocks, mourning the loss of her beloved pet deer after it was killed by the Trojan Ascanius, Aeneas’s son. The consequences of this tragic event, after which the Latin herdsmen sought revenge, resulted in a war between the Trojans and the Latins for the future site of Rome. Kauffmann’s drawing shows the poignant moment when Sylvia kneels beside her lifeless stag, its head lying in her lap, while her astonished attendants look on.

With remarkable fluidity and clarity of line, Kauffmann plotted the complex, multifigured composition, forgoing the modeling and further detailing she would have included in a second, more finished drawing. Though the final painting based on this drawing has since been lost, an indication of its appearance, which differs from the sketch, can be seen in an 1800 reproductive engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi.

Death of Sylvia’s Stag represents an important addition to our holdings of Neoclassical history drawings as well as our holdings of artwork made by women before 1800. A pivotal aspect of Kauffmann’s working process, this drawing joins two other works by the artist in the collection: an etching of an old man reading (2014.19.7) and the recently acquired Portrait of Mary Pocklington of Winthorpe Hall (2022.17.2).

— Dana Cowen, Sheldon Peck Curator of European and American Art before 1950

Image credit:

Angelica Kauffmann, Swiss, active in England, 1741-1807, Death of Sylvia’s Stag, c. 1777, black and white chalk on two conjoined sheets of prepared, gray paper, 9 1/4 × 12 1/2 in. (23.5 × 31.8 cm). The Peck Collection, 2023.38.