By Doug Stewart
In the first U.S. show of his work, Johann Zoffany is revealed as a cultured, humorous observer of Georgian England who found success while breaking the rules.
In the early 1780s, a German emigré in England named Johan Zoffany began work on a group portrait of his friend Charles Townley and three companions. All, like the artist himself, were passionate collectors of antiquities. The private library of Townley’s London townhouse, where the picture is set, wasn’t crowded enough for Zoffany’s taste, so servants brought in more objects. In the painting, the small room is almost comically packed with wrestling satyrs and ancient sages.
For all the statuary on display, however, the artist has highlighted the people, not the objects. Townley, in the foreground, and his friends appear spotlit, while the marbles have a subdued ochre cast. Zoffany couldn’t resist sneaking little jokes into his paintings. Deep in conversation at center is Charles Greville, an aristocratic young rake in a red coat whose right arm is practically draped over an ancient Roman nymph in déshabille. The fingers of his other hand brush against the gown that has slipped well down the nymph’s left arm, as though he were helping her get undressed. It was no secret at the time that Greville was having an affair with a ravishing teenaged chambermaid, Emma Hart (the future Lady Hamilton).
Innovative, versatile, and witty, Zoffany produced a body of work that stands today as a vivid and entertaining record of high society in Georgian England. “He is the Jane Austen of English painting,” wrote architectural historian Christopher Hussey in 1930. Royalty, peers of the realm, politicians, merchants, actors, musicians, artists—all gaze out at us from Zoffany’s canvases.
The first exhibition about the artist ever to come to the United States, “Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed,” is on view at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., through February 12, 2012. From March through June it will be at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, the show’s co-organizer. On display are 65 oils, along with numerous drawings and prints. Many of the works are from the vaults of the Royal Collection and have never been publicly exhibited before.
“I don’t think any other artist focused so specifically and intensely on British society,” says exhibition curator Martin Postle, assistant director of London’s Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. When Zoffany arrived in England as a young man, Postle notes, he was an utter outsider who knew little or nothing about English society or English taste in art. “In theory,” says Postle, “he was totally ill-equipped to do what he did. It’s really quite remarkable.”
Zoffany was born near Frankfurt. In his teens, like many aspiring artists of the 18th century, he traveled on foot to Italy. There the young artist-pilgrim studied the works of Renaissance masters and practiced copying classical art. When he returned to Germany, he became a virtuoso of flowery, Baroque-style history paintings. In 1760, bored with decorative work, he moved to England.
Despite a thick German accent and a face so disfigured by smallpox that one eye had contracted to a permanent squint, the artist was a courtly, smooth-talking ladies’ man. Georgian London was a melting pot of ambitious artists and Continental immigrants. Arriving without friends or connections, Zoffany quickly befriended influential members of the German community such as Johann Christian Bach—son of Johann Sebastian Bach—who was music master to England’s Queen Charlotte.
It was a good time to be a German in London. Charlotte, George III’s wife, was herself German-born, as the king’s predecessors, George I and George II, had been. Zoffany quickly became a favorite of the queen, whom he painted at least eight times.
The Yale exhibition includes an arresting 1771 portrait of the king. “Farmer George” preferred breeding sheep and growing flowers to holding court. Here, dressed as an army officer, he sits with his legs wide apart, heavyset and relaxed. It’s an affectionate portrait of a soldier at ease, more Falstaff than Louis XIV. Conservative critics like Sir Horace Walpole allowed that the picture was an excellent likeness but was otherwise “most disagreeable.” The English public disagreed; engravings of the portrait sold briskly.
Zoffany’s style, with its attention to detail, highly finished paint surfaces and luminous colors, was well suited to royalty and nouveaux riches alike. His subjects are often draped expensively in pearls and silks and surrounded by luxury goods, from imported china to Greek vases. In a charming 1769 canvas, a pot-bellied Sir Lawrence Dundas, a wealthy stock speculator who had risen from humble roots, poses proudly with his grandson, surrounded by bronze sculptures and gilt-framed Old Masters.
Zoffany’s speciality was the group portrait or “conversation piece.” This was typically a small outdoor scene with a family or other group posed informally as if chatting or playing music. He would crowd up to 15 family members into a picture. Since artists were paid by the head, he could earn more from a conversation piece than Reynolds could from a life-sized, full-length society portrait.
A tour de force in this genre was Zoffany’s 1771 portrayal of a meeting of the prestigious new Royal Academy, which he painted for himself, not on commission. The illustrious members, each identifiable, lounge unselfconsciously, some sitting on crates, as a male model is set into position as though for an anatomy lecture. A young fop in the foreground, Richard Cosway, stands with one outstretched hand on the head of his gold-headed cane, the very model of aristocratic languor. The cane’s tip rests suggestively on a supine marble Venus, inches from her mons pubis. In the foreground opposite, Zoffany inserted a small self-portrait, palette in hand; the perennial outsider, he alone squints directly at the viewer.
To be sure, Zoffany’s work could be uneven. Some of the conversations in his conversation pieces can look stilted (especially to a modern eye accustomed to the candid informality of group photographs). Nevertheless, his faces are appealingly human and often lively. Moreover, he avoided the portraitist’s trap of flattering sitters.
Temperamentally, Zoffany was not well suited to a career in portraiture. He was thin-skinned, hot-blooded and free-spending. He was no one’s servant. His best works were projects carried out on his own. A portrait of a shabbily dressed optician, John Cuff, shown in his workshop with an elderly assistant, is a stark, unsentimental document of the working-class artisans Zoffany clearly admired. Its dramatic lighting and rich detail call to mind the work of such northern Renaissance masters as Hans Holbein.
In 1772 Queen Charlotte commissioned Zoffany to paint Florence’s glorious gallery of Old Masters, the Tribuna of the Uffizi. The painter ended up staying in Italy for six years, interspersing work on what would be his masterpiece with commissions from Continental grandees like the Austrian empress Maria Theresa. In Italy, he took to wearing a pink velvet coat, which in England was a privilege reserved for earls. When they learned of this breach of protocol, the king and queen were displeased, but not as much as when they saw the painting Zoffany brought back.
In The Tribuna of the Uffizi, the meticulously rendered artwork on the Uffizi’s walls and pedestals is upstaged by the 22 excited Englishmen crowded around it. This was the age of the Grand Tour, when well-born men climaxed their none-too-demanding educations at Oxford or Cambridge with a wine-soaked sojourn on the Continent. Near the edge of Zoffany’s painting, four young gentlemen in wigs, one with an eyeglass, stand in a tight cluster, staring up reverently at the buttocks of the Venus de’ Medici.
“It was an embarrassment,” says Postle. “The king and queen had wanted a room full of Old Master paintings, and they get a room full of Old Masters with, as Horace Walpole said, a flock of traveling boys.” The queen eventually paid Zoffany, reluctantly.
Zoffany was an Anglophile, though a restless one. He later spent six years in India, painting dignitaries both English and native. His group portraits became increasingly crowded and action-filled, culminating with a dramatic rendering of a crowd at a cockfight. Back in England, his last major works, executed in the 1790s, were tableaux of French revolutionary violence, notably a scene of a murderous mob plundering King Louis XVI’s wine cellar. Like many other transplants, Zoffany was a staunch monarchist. The Terror across the channel horrified him.
After the artist died in 1810, esteem for his work faded. His role as portraitist to bygone aristocrats didn’t help, nor did his personal reputation as a prickly, German-accented social outsider with a fondness for lewd visual jokes. And his art was simply too hard to categorize, according to Postle. “He could have made a fortune painting Grand Manner society portraits like Reynolds, but to him that was boring. That’s why I think Zoffany is so great—he’s undisciplined. He doesn’t play the game.”