Writing Archive

Exhibition Note: On "Johann Zoffany RA: Society Observed” at the Yale Center for British Art

The New Criterion, February 2012 (read there)

The Yale Center for British Art has set out to rehabilitate the reputation of Johann Zoffany, a German expatriate who became a member of the Royal Academy by appointment of King George III. One might argue that he isn't better-known for fair reasons. His work is present in few American collections, he altered the spelling of his name several times, and his peripatetic life bewildered later chroniclers of English painting. His contemporaries included Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth, and, although he was an able painter with a gift for the theatrical, he had neither the deft wrist of the former nor the piercing eye of the latter. Yet within the parameters of genre scenes and group portraiture, he produced dozens of striking, original works. His portraits of single figures, if they don't always rank as masterpieces, are full of puckish verve that makes up for many of their shortcomings.

Born Johannes Joesphus Zauffaly near Frankfurt in 1733, he was introduced into courtly life by his father, a cabinetmaker in the employ of Prince Alexander Ferdinand von Thurn und Taxis. He studied in Regensburg under Martin Speer, who had trained in Italy, and, at the age of seventeen, the young painter journeyed to Rome on foot. Italy received him warmly. He attached to the studio of Agostino Masucci, who had taken in the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton, and it's probable that he crossed paths with young Englishmen who would figure in the future of British art, most notably Joshua Reynolds.

After a few years, Zoffany returned briefly to Germany and painted a Martyrdom of St. Barholomew (1753), in which a comically vicious Turk, gripping a fillet knife with his mouth, peels a strip from the underside of the saint's upper arm like a banana. It hurts just to look at it. Though it's a melodramatic rendition, the figures' torsos display the twenty-year-old Zoffany's comfortable mastery of anatomy. Back in Rome, he studied with his countryman Anton Raphael Mengs, who may be the model for the head of Goliath in Zoffany's 1756 rakish image of David.

A dismaying appointment to a minor Rhineland nobleman prompted him to leave for England in 1760 with a new wife who soon returned to Germany. Zoffany stayed on and circulated among the German community of London, where he met Leopold Mozart and J. C. Bach. Bach's social connections led him to a circle of patrons of the arts, sciences, and trades, as well as to the British court. This milieu kept him busy for the next decade. The actor David Garrick had him produce a long series of theatrical scenes, commemorating stage performances at the Royal Drury Lane Theatre. Their lack of naturalism looks awkward to the modern eye: Figures mug for the back row and gesticulate at one another in full costume in front of nominal interiors. But forgiven their staginess (which, after all, was the point of the commissions), they provide a charming glimpse into the theater of the time.

Zoffany's first London period culminated, at least professionally, with the Royal Academy's exhibition of a 1771 portrait of George III which the Yale catalog describes as idiosyncratic. It may be unlike anything in royal portraiture. George sits on a green velvet chair—a fine chair but hardly a throne—with his legs splayed and his weight on one elbow. His free hand pushes on his knee as if he were ready to raise himself up and depart. His face is friendly and unconcerned. His sword and cap are tossed in a heap beside him on a table. His red military coat, meticulously painted down to the gold embroidery, resounds against the green velvet. It presents the monarch in a pose that wouldn't be inapt if there were a tankard of ale near his arm instead of a sheathed rapier. The informality and boldness testify to a great friendship between Zoffany and the king. Otherwise, it's hard to know why the king would have suffered its existence.

Zoffany accepted a commission from Queen Charlotte to paint the Tribuna of the Uffizi, the famous octagonal room which displayed the gallery's most significant Medici holdings. (The painting belongs to the Royal Academy and, sadly, was not permitted to travel from there.) This brought him to Florence with his mistress, Mary Thomas. Though the painter never divorced his German wife, Thomas became the de facto Mrs. Zoffany. A 1781 portrait of Thomas from the Ashmolean Museum is the jewel of the Yale exhibition. She is doe-eyed, long-nosed, tight-lipped, and wearing the expression of a woman who knows her own mind. Her hands are languid and crossed in front of her. If I have thus far hedged my praise of Zoffany, I render it in full here. This masterful arrangement of silk, flesh, powdered hair, and black blouse stands up to any eighteenth-century portrait in its veracity and personality.

The several years that Zoffany spent in Florence were full of accolades. Empress Maria Theresa made him a Baron of the Holy Roman Empire. Giovanni Battista Piranesi dedicated an engraving plate to him as a gesture of friendship and high respect. The Uffizi invited him to contribute a self-portrait, which is in the Yale exhibition. This 1778 painting shows him dressed in an anachronistic, fur-lined coat. He holds a skull and an hourglass, and yet he smiles with an open-mouthed grin. A plaster cast of a flayed figure seems to hold its hand over Zoffany's head in benediction. A book leans beside it, upon which ars longa, vita brevis has been inscribed, tempering the blessing. The painting parodies art history, but it is a loving parody that results from Zoffany's reluctance to take himself too seriously.

The last great adventure of the artist's life was a 1783 trip to India. He needed money, since the Queen rejected his Tribuna and the court of George III cut him off. The India trip exposed him to British clients in Calcutta and Lucknow who purchased family portraits executed on the Georgian model, yet replete with Indian friends, business partners, and servants. Zoffany's depictions of Indians are as individual as his Europeans. One side-by-side comparison is made possible by The Blair Family (1786-7), in which the younger Blair daughter shares the family cat with her Cawnporean playmate, wrapped head-and-shoulders in a red and gold shawl. Zoffany also produced astute portraits of the Indian nobility, particularly the 1784 portrait of Hasan Reza Khan, which is as attentive to the fashioning of the minister's hookah as to his intelligent, critical gaze. The painter found time, too, to sire a brood with an Indian mistress during his time on the subcontinent.

Zoffany returned to England in 1788, renewed his friendship with George III, and spent his last years in the company of his British children and grandchildren as he nursed his declining health and painted little of note. After his death, bad pictures and faulty biographical details were mistakenly associated with him, thus diminishing his standing in British art for 200 years. That is a hard thing to put right, but Yale has done it through this convincing, thorough exhibition.

Word count: 1181

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