Johan Zoffany: One to watch

Published 21 March 2012

A founding member of the RA as well as a wry observer and commentator on Georgian life, this is a first look at our exhibition of the work of Johan Zoffany.

  • From the Spring 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), though marked by an ugly visage and a squint, was also a man of consummate charm. Raised the son of a master craftsman attached to a princely court in Frankfurt, he died in London, ending an almost 70-year journey that took him across two continents, where he enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Thurn and Taxis in Regensburg, the Elector of Trier, the British Royal family, the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Tuscany, the Duke of Parma, Maria Theresa of Austria and the nawab vizier, Asaf-ud-Daula, in Lucknow.

    Not only rulers were subject to his charms. He had at least three long-term partners (German, English and Indian) not to mention other lovers. He also had a knack for friendship. This served him well in London – where he mixed easily with actors, musicians and men of science – in Italy, where he hobnobbed with nobles and Grand Tourists as well as artists, and in India, where he was admired by Britons and Indians alike.

  • Johan Zoffany, Charles Townley's Library, No. 7 Park Street, Westminster

    Johan Zoffany, Charles Townley's Library, No. 7 Park Street, Westminster, 1781-3, 1792, 1798.

    Burnley Borough Council, Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museums, purchased with the Assistance of The National Art Collections Fund, 1939/Photo © Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, Lancashire / The Bridgeman Art Library..

  • A cosmopolitan figure, he trained first as a baroque decorator in Germany, was educated by the artist and theorist Anton Raphael Mengs in Rome, and was influenced by that most English of artists, William Hogarth, as well as by 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting. He produced history paintings, genre scenes and “fancy pictures”, portraits, both theatrical and personal, as well as his famous conversation pieces. A political conservative, he delighted in the title Baron of the Holy Roman Empire, an honour conferred by Empress Maria Theresa for his masterly portrayal of her relatives, The Family of the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (1776). He was appalled by the excesses of the French Revolution, which he depicted in graphic Hogarthian detail in Plundering the King’s Cellar at Paris (1794).

    But Zoffany was also something of a libertine. The wife of his first teacher, Frau Speer, described him as “a man entirely free from the prejudices of superstition… with little power of resistance to feminine charms whenever he encountered them”. For much of his life he had a wife in Germany (who only died in 1805), as well as a younger woman who was ‘Mrs Zoffany’ in both England and Italy. A freemason who quarrelled with friends over his mockery of the Christian gospels, his patrons and companions included figures like Sir Charles Townley and the Baron d’Hancarville, with their heterodox views on religion.

  • Johan Zoffany, Self-Portrait with a Friar’s Habit

    Johan Zoffany, Self-Portrait with a Friar’s Habit, 1779.

    Galleria Nazionale di Parma/Photo Galleria Nazionale di Parma.

  • Zoffany had a penchant for the material world, and an inveterate playfulness and lewd humour that may have been temperamental but also smacked of Epicureanism. Not many artists painted themselves donning a masquerade costume, surrounded by sexually suggestive objects and images, including two condoms tacked to the wall, as can be seen in his Self-Portrait with a Friar’s Habit, of 1779.

    There was always something protean, skilfully adaptive and inventive about Zoffany (even his name was spelt in many different ways) that made him, in more than one sense, difficult to pin down. Dismissed by some of his early critics as a wandering cosmopolitan, claimed by others as a British artist, neither characterisation really captures the exuberant nature of a man who seemingly cared little for contradiction, and even appeared to thrive on it. Take the question of Zoffany’s nationality. In 1771, in a move that seemed to confirm his “Englishness”, Zoffany became an English denizen. Not a naturalised subject, which would have required an Act of Parliament, but a denizen, which required only letters patent issued by George III under his royal prerogative. Just as Zoffany had been appointed by the King to the Royal Academy in 1769, so he chose a royal road to Englishness, even though it conferred fewer rights than naturalisation. Yet, even as his status changed, Zoffany was planning an escape to the South Seas with Sir Joseph Banks on Cook’s second voyage. When that fell through, he skipped by ship to Italy in 1772, followed by the teenage grisette he had recently made pregnant and who was to become his second wife.

  • Johan Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi

    Johan Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-77.

    he Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

  • Zoffany spent only 16 of his first 50 years in Britain; he never spoke the language well. But then his attachments were personal, not territorial or linguistic. He liked England, he wrote in a letter to the poet George Huddesford, because, “der is no Contry Equel tu it for Soceiati”. When asked in Florence about his nationality by Joseph II, he responded that he had been born in Ratisbon, “but I am an Englishman, because in that Country I found protection and Encouragement”.

    It is doubtful that he came to England because of British art, of which he must have known little. But what he would have known was that the London art world offered opportunities for the expression of his genius. Arriving in 1760, the year which saw the first major exhibition of contemporary British art in London at the Society of Artists, Zoffany at first had difficulty finding his feet, working as a decorator of clock dials and as a drapery painter in Benjamin Wilson’s studio. But, following the advice of his friend, the engraver, Simon-François Ravenet, he turned his talents to the dominant genre of English painting – portraiture.

    In line with his courtly past experience, he was able (perhaps through German-speaking connections) to ingratiate himself with Queen Charlotte and King George, a relationship that was to flourish until 1779, when the royal couple fell out with Zoffany, in part because the Queen was shocked by the artist’s inclusion of prurient young men and two notorious “finger-twirlers” (homosexual men) among the figures in his masterpiece The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-77). They never employed him again.

  • Johan Zoffany, Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match

    Johan Zoffany, Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match, c. 1784-88.

    Tate, London, purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and a group of donors, 1994/Photo © Tate, London 2011.

  • But while it lasted, royal largesse not only produced some magnificent portraits, such as the brilliantly handled and sumptuous Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons (1764-65) but also linked Zoffany to Scottish patrons, mostly notably George III’s favourite, Lord Bute. Many of the clients who commissioned his portraits in the 1760s were known as ‘the King’s Friends’.

    Royalty brought Zoffany to the court and the RA, but David Garrick, actor-manager and impresario, led Zoffany into the public eye. Garrick, whose nose for publicity was second to none, commissioned a series of theatrical portraits, including some of his most successful roles, such as Macbeth (see David Garrick and Mrs Pritchard in Macbeth, 1768). Often engraved as mezzotints, they were highly popular, widely admired for their skilled characterisation and brilliant detail.

    By the 1770s Zoffany was a star, acclaimed not just for his bold theatrical portraits, but also for his conversation pieces that vividly staged the intimacy of families and friends. But a troubled personal life and an innate restlessness drove him from England, ostensibly on the royal commission to paint the Tribuna in Florence. Zoffany was as popular on the banks of the Arno as on the shores of the Thames, not only completing this masterpiece, but gaining election to a number of Italian academies, as well as securing important commissions from the Grand Duke and his imperial relatives in Vienna.

  • Johan Zoffany, Queen Charlotte with her two Eldest Sons

    Johan Zoffany, Queen Charlotte with her two Eldest Sons, 1764-65.

    The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

  • Zoffany’s return to London in 1779 was less happy. Faced with the loss of royal patronage, and confronted by a changing taste for portraiture that made his theatre pictures and conversation pieces less à la mode, in 1783 he set out on his travels again, seeking to consolidate his finances in the East Indies. The six years in India were a triumph, though they seriously damaged his health. They also produced another masterpiece, Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match (c.1784-88) whose rich colouring captures the Anglo-Indian society of Lucknow and his Indian and European friends. Zoffany portrays himself in the upper right of the canvas, with his friend and fellow Academician, Ozias Humphry, resting a friendly hand on his right shoulder.

    Back in Britain in 1789, Zoffany never really recovered his health and many critics thought his powers diminished. He hankered to go travelling again – in 1798 threatening to return to India – but finally settled for domestic felicity, marrying his aging common-law wife, Mary Thomas, five years before his death in 1810.

    Zoffany’s pictures – and not just his theatrical portraits – were invariably staged. Though the figures they depict are more often than not absorbed by their surroundings, both human and material, they have a certain theatricality. They seem posed, in order to be observed. Indeed we know that, though individual facial expressions and particular objects were rendered by Zoffany with an accuracy that astonished many of his viewers, the mise-en-scène of his pictures was usually contrived. The artworks depicted in his Tribuna were arranged to reflect his artistic tastes as well as the layout in the room. In Charles Townley’s Library, No. 7 Park Street, Westminster, the gentleman’s library was populated with works that were never there, in order to tell an important story about the connoisseurs who appeared in the picture. Indeed it is striking how finely connected the human figures in Zoffany’s work are to the material world they inhabit, dressed in lustrous fabrics and surrounded by objects of taste. There is no semblance in Zoffany’s work of an anxiety about the power of things. On the contrary, there is a persistent celebration of their richness, both as material, tactile objects, and as vehicles of instruction and amusement. This is not a matter of status, of their public import, but of objects as a source of private pleasure.

  • Johan Zoffany, Plundering the King's Cellar at Paris

    Johan Zoffany, Plundering the King's Cellar at Paris, 1794.

    Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund/Photo Noortman Master Paintings/The Bridgeman Art Library International.

  • What is most striking about Zoffany’s group portraits – and these are unquestionably his most powerful works, which is not the case for Reynolds, Romney or Gainsborough – is the degree of physical intimacy they express among the sitters. What connects the royal group portraits in England and Italy with such conversation pieces as The Family of Sir William Young (1767-68) or, indeed, such Indian portraits as The Blair Family (1786-87) is the exceptional physical warmth they express: couples hold hands, siblings wrap their arms around one another, clutch their mother or baby sister, stroke their favourite pet or hold their most cherished toy. Reynolds’ and Gainsborough’s figures may look more elegant or more noble, but they never express that intimate affection, that domestic contentedness best described by the German term heimlich. It is yet another of the contradictions about Zoffany that he was so adept at evoking the pleasures of familial intimacy while his own domestic circumstances, until his declining years, remained turbulent.

    Zoffany was a man who thrived upon sociability in all its forms, especially friendship. It is therefore fitting that his greatest contribution to the Royal Academy was not, in the manner of Reynolds, the elaboration of a theory of art, but a group portrait – The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-72) – that, perhaps more than any other work, has fixed our image of that institution in the years of its inception.

  • Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed The Sackler Wing, 10 March–10 June. Co-organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Yale Center for British Art. 2009-2013 Season supported by JTI. Supported by Cox & Kings.

    John Brewer is Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Insititute of Technology.



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