RA Magazine Spring 2012
Issue Number: 114
Johan Zoffany: Finding the founders
Johan Zoffany’s portrait of the first Royal Academicians is not only a who’s who of the key artists of the day but a comment on the individuals shown, writes Martin Postle
Pictures of art academies became increasingly common after the Renaissance, showing artists undergoing training in drawing, painting, sculpture and engraving. Zoffany’s remarkable painting of the Royal Academy, which he began in 1771, is quite different, although it purports to take place in a life class, with the presence of two male models.
Johan Zoffany, 'The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy', 1771-72. The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection © 2010 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Co-organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Yale Center for British Art.
On the left is Reynolds, the President, in a black suit engaged in discussion with colleagues. To his left is a spread out group all looking the other way at the model whose arm is being adjusted by George Moser, Keeper of the Academy. This division may have been intended to illustrate the two aspects of the Academy’s work, theory and practice. The prominent figure in spectacles standing on the rug is Richard Yeo who, while not a particularly important RA, was Engraver of the King’s Seal and important to the King. Zoffany probably hoped that this painting would catch the King’s eye, which it did and he bought it for 500 guineas – about £65,000 today.
This is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Academicians, shot through with humour and affection: a tribute to the brotherhood shared by artists involved in this fledgling institution. Rather than showcasing an artistic community at work – educating or being educated – it explores the individual character of the various protagonists, as they talk, listen, contemplate, or simply strike poses. Aside from the inclusion of a few plaster casts, benches, and an oil lamp, the room itself is sparse. Yet, the inspiration for Zoffany’s painting was one of the grandest and most celebrated frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, Raphael’s School of Athens (1509-11) in the Stanza della Segnatura, Rome. Both in its compositional organisation and iconography, Zoffany referred here to the origin of academic discourse in Plato’s academy, where art, poetry and literature were bound together by a common intellectual pursuit, and the bond of friendship.
First Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy, William Hunter (1718-83) had been involved in teaching anatomy to art students. Here Hunter strokes his chin as he contemplates the living model, an indication of the central role the model played in both artistic and medical discourse. Hunter the empiricist plays Aristotle to a Platonic Reynolds, who, looking away from the model, upholds the abstract principles of the Academy.
The father of British landscape painting Richard Wilson, is a curiously isolated figure, leaning disconsolately against the chimneypiece, arms folded. By this time Wilson’s career was on the wane, partly due to his fondness for drink. Wilson, whom a mutual friend described as Zoffany’s former ‘bottle-companion’, was said to have been depicted originally with a tankard of beer above his head on the mantelpiece, although not trace of it can be seen today.
Cosway became an Academician in 1771, and was a later addition to the painting, being added on a strip of canvas attached at the right hand side. Known for his flamboyant dress sense and behaviour, Cosway, a so-called ‘Macaroni Painter’, stands in the pose of the celebrated classical statue, the Apollo Belvedere. At his feet is a plaster cast of a torso of Venus, upon which Cosway rests his cane suggestively. Cosway was a known womaniser.
THE MODEL IN THE FOREGROUND
The younger male model in the foreground is taking off his clothes in preparation for a life class, his shoes, coat and shirt strewn on the floor before him. Ingeniously, Zoffany has placed the model in the pose of the famous classical statue, Spinario, which features a boy removing a thorn from his foot – although here he removes a sock. At that time male models in the Royal Academy sat for two hours during an evening session and were paid five shillings a week, plus a shilling for each sitting. Female models, by contrast, were paid ten shillings and sixpence per sitting.
SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS
Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, is dressed in a black velvet court suit. At his side his dress-sword is visible, indicating the knighthood recently conferred upon him by the King. Reynolds converses with the two men to his right, the architect William Chambers and the portrait painter Francis Milner Newton, respectively Treasurer and Secretary of the Academy. In his right hand, Reynolds cradles a silver ear trumpet, a reminder of his deafness. Reynolds attributed the affliction to a chill caught in the Sistine Chapel, although members of his family who had not visited Rome were also affected by the condition.
At the time of Zoffany’s painting Francesco Zuccarelli was an instructor or ‘visitor’ in the life class at the Academy, one of his duties being to pose the model. Zoffany, who did not much like Zuccarelli, depicts him somewhat satirically in a theatrical manner, instructing the seated model, who is taking up the pose of St John the Baptist, derived from Raphael’s famous painting of c.1518.
An imposing figure, Francis (‘Frank’) Hayman is seated foursquare upon a wooden box, one hand upon his knee, the other grasping his cane like a cudgel. Hayman was one of the elder statesmen of the academic community, and an old friend of Zoffany and of Hogarth, with whom he had participated as a leading light in the St Martin’s Lane Academy, a forerunner of the present Royal Academy.
MARY MOSER AND ANGELICA KAUFFMAN
On the wall hang portraits of the two female founder members of the Royal Academy, the Swiss portraitist, Angelica Kauffman, and, to the right in profile, Mary Moser, a flower painter. Kauffman had arrived in London in 1766, whereupon she became a favourite, reputedly even a lover, of Reynolds, whose portrait she painted. Mary Moser was the daughter of George Michael Moser, a key figure in the foundation of the Royal Academy, and its first Keeper, responsible for running the Schools. Kauffman and Moser have only a virtual presence in Zoffany’s painting since it would have been considered indecent for them to have appeared in the room with the nude male models.
Zoffany has placed himself at the extreme left of the composition. Among the artists, he, alone, holds a palette and brushes, indicating his role as creator of the painting. His thick fur-trimmed coat, and overshoes suggest that he is dressed for outdoors, a pictorial device which may also refer to the fact that he is outside the main sphere of activity, acting as observer rather than participant.
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