Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed
Location: Royal Academy of Arts, London
Event Date: June 2012
Review Date: 15th June 2012
Reviewed By: Allison Goudie, New College, Oxford
Review Citation: Allison Goudie, review of Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed
Date Accessed: 19th May 2013
The life of Johan Zoffany, like his best canvases, offers an abundance of captivating anecdotes. From undertaking the artistic pilgrimage from Germany to Italy as a student on foot, to his energetic pursuit of the Romany language at the age of 65, the persona of Zoffany sparkles in the letters and diaries of his contemporaries.
It is striking, therefore, that such a charismatic figure of the eighteenth century should have been neglected in art historical scholarship for so long. Martin Postle, curator of this exhibition, writes in the catalogue that one of the reasons for Zoffany’s relative obscurity in art historical scholarship until the later twentieth century was that the value of his paintings as stunningly articulated historical documents of the eighteenth century upstaged concern for the biography of the artist behind them. This exhibition sets about rectifying this imbalance, restoring the person of Zoffany in all his splendid eccentricity to the comprehensive portrait of eighteenth-century society his oeuvre provides.
For the century and a half following his death in 1810 the state of Zoffany scholarship was potholded at best, and at worst downright incorrect. A strange fate for an artist of such note in his own time as to have been nominated to the Royal Academy by George III soon after its foundation. It is Zoffany, after all, we have to thank for that iconic document of the early Academy, The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy
, that naturally takes its place at the heart of the exhibition. Much work has been done in recent decades to restore Zoffany to his rightful place in the roster of great British portraitists of the eighteenth century. This exhibition, accompanied by a bountiful catalogue, the conference Zoffany and his International Contexts
, and an impressive public events programme both at the Royal Academy in London and the Yale Centre for British Art, is a worthy consolidation of recent scholarship that will go far in securing the artist’s position in both the academic and public consciousness.
Born near Frankfurt in 1733, Zoffany’s intercontinental career (perhaps the pretext for his perpetual wanderlust) took him to Italy, Britain, India, and almost as far as the South Pacific, had his planned voyage with Sir Joseph Banks and Captain James Cook not fallen through. The consummate cultural chameleon, the artist was known as Zoffani in Italy, Zauffalij or Zauffaly in Germany, and variously Zoffanij, Zoffani, Zaffani, and Soffani in England. Structured roughly chronologically, the exhibition presents as an album of the artist’s colourful life through his depiction of the societies around him, spotlighting its various episodes. Defined as much geographically as thematically, it charts Zoffany’s own many metamorphoses.
Upon arrival in London in 1760 Zoffany fit right into the cosmopolitan maelstrom that was England’s capital. A familiar face in the thriving German community, counting among his friends and acquaintances Johann Christian Bach and Leopold Mozart, Zoffany was also an enthusiastic Anglophile, who affectionately referred to ‘Old England’. After an unremarkable debut in his adoptive home working as a drapery painter, Zoffany quickly tapped into portraiture, that most fashionable of genres in eighteenth-century Britain. A friendship with David Garrick was Zoffany’s passport into British society, and the lively London theatre scene evidently provided the necessary catalyst to allow Zoffany to come into his own as portraitist. This transformation is palpable in the transition from the first section of the exhibition – which collects various works, largely mythological in subject matter, from Zoffany’s period as a student in Italy – to the second, comprised of a solid catalogue of theatrical portraits undertaken in Britain.
It was in the specific sub-genre of the conversation piece, however, where Zoffany truly outdid his British-born colleagues on their own turf. When Zoffany arrived in Britain the conversation piece, having enjoyed considerable popularity earlier in the century in the hands of William Hogarth, was ailing. It lost favour to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ascendant Grand Style portraiture, which aspired to bestow the dignity of history painting on the inferior genre of the portrait. Perhaps it took precisely a foreigner’s eye to reinvigorate the conversation piece. So successful was Zoffany in this project, that he was commissioned to paint the royal family, no less, in ‘conversation’. Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons
hums with Zoffany’s delight in observation and indulges his mastery of detail.
While one central section of the exhibition bears the name ‘Portraits and Conversations’, in reality the whole exhibition is shot through with Zoffany’s affinity to the conversation piece mode. It is in his densely populated group portrait-scenes such as The Academicians of the Royal Academy, The Sharp Family, The Tribuna of the Uffizi
, and Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match
that we encounter Zoffany truly in his element. These observational tours de force
are used to punctuate the exhibition as headlines for their respective subsections. In so doing, they demonstrate just to what extent Zoffany pushed the potential of the conversation piece to its limits.
This did not come entirely without its risks, of course. As Postle succinctly points out in the catalogue, while Zoffany was ‘a consummate painter of society’, he was ‘temperamentally unsuited to follow the conventional career of the compliant “society” painter’. In 1779, George III finally received Zoffany’s account of the Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence that had been commissioned by Queen Charlotte as a sort of virtual visit. However, the evident enjoyment Zoffany had taken in capturing the less than gentlemanly interest of identifiable Grand Tourists in the Venus de’ Medici
and Titian’s Venus of Urbino
– this painting is an irresistible conversation-piece postcard of Grand Tour antics – ensured not only that Queen Charlotte would ‘not suffer the picture to be placed in any of Her apartments’, but that Zoffany’s royal patronage in Britain had expired.
After the debacle of the Tribuna
, Zoffany moved to India where he remained for six years, charging considerable sums for conversation pieces depicting his cashed-up patrons. The space dedicated to this episode in the exhibition presents as a precious inventory of the ‘gold dust’ Zoffany was said to have sought there, and as Maya Jasanoff points out in the catalogue, this was not only financial but also artistic. Nowhere is the impact of his Indian sojourn more evident than in Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match
, where Zoffany borrows something of the Mughal miniature painting in this ambitious 75-figure conversation piece, with exhilarating results. Its audacious final flourish – a gesture that would have piqued genre-hierarchy purists – is the artist’s own labeling of the work as a history painting. Of course, this designation now seems infinitely appropriate given what the work reveals of this chapter in Anglo-Indian colonial relations. It is rather fitting, moreover, in light of this exhibition’s objective to restore the person of Zoffany to the history he painted of the eighteenth century, that staring out from this scene to greet our gaze is a self-portrait of the artist himself.
What Zoffany’s conversation pieces sometimes lack in size, they more than make up for in sheer intensity. The exhibition, too, has a certain density that is reminiscent of Zoffany’s most fabulously claustrophobic compositions. Tightly packed into the Sackler Galleries upstairs at the Royal Academy, the works are hung to deftly maximize available wall space. The paintings are interspersed with cabinets showcasing drawings and prints by and after Zoffany, a display of mix and match porcelain figure groups after Zoffany’s portrait of George III and his family in fashionable ‘Van Dyck’ garb, and the Royal Academy’s own original eighteenth-century écorché that echoes that in Zoffany’s Dr William Hunter Lecturing at the Royal Academy and The Academicians of the Royal Academy. The overall effect is one that promotes the same kind of intense looking that the artist himself so relished, and that pulses through his work.
'Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed' is at the Royal Academy, London, from 10 March to 10 June 2012.