James Cowan tells us the best exhibition so far this year at the Royal Academy is by one of is founder members, Johan Zoffany (1733 – 1810). Do you agree?
In a century of great artists such as Gainsborourgh, Reynolds and Hogarth, Zoffany is the least well known to the general public. Born in Germany, he trained there and in Italy before arriving in England where by force of his personality and technical ability, he won commissions for theatre pieces from the actor David Garrick. This started his career as a portrait painter and his status was finally assured when King George 111 and Queen Charlotte commissioned portraits.
Zoffany’s forte was for a composition known as a ‘conversation piece’, which was an artfully contrived arrangement of figures within a painting of either family, friends or associates. He painted the portraits of his fellow Royal Academicians in which he inserted a large number of figures, but the most delightful of these arranged compositions is of the Sharpe Family, a family of musicians who gave concerts on the Thames on board their sailing barge. His great ability was to render the informal relationship between individuals and bring to the fore their personalities. No preliminary studies survive for these portraits possibly because Zoffany had the ability to draw and paint a likeness directly onto the canvas. In his self-portrait of 1778 he portrays himself getting dressed in a monks habit with a pack of cards, a bottle of wine and two condoms nailed to the wall, which tells us something about his exuberant personality and a possible link to the Hellfire Club and the ‘Monks of Medmenham’, as the members of this licentious high society club were called.
These ‘milords’ would certainly have done The Grand Tour which was in the 18th Century a chance to savour the delights of art and architecture, music and theatre and engage with society in the principal centres of culture such as Florence, Venice and Rome. In Florence the Grand Duke of Tuscany was known to have the finest collection of paintings hung in an Octagonal Room in the Uffici called the ‘Tribuna’ and this was a magnet and meeting place for the tourists of the day. Such was its fame that Queen Charlotte commissioned Zoffany to travel to Italy and bring back a painting of this famous room. The result was a tour de force. Zoffany had the paintings on the walls and the sculptures rearranged to suit his composition, brought in other pictures from the Pitti palace and then painted in the cast of characters all of whom well known aristocrats and gentry of the day. The Queen was delighted with the painting until she discovered that Zoffany had included two well-known gentlemen whose sexual orientation precluded them from being seen in a Royal Collection. Zoffany was then out of favour with the Monarchy and so to further his career travelled to India to restore his fortunes, as according to the essayist William Hazlitt, he suffered from ‘a congenital incontinence of the purse’.
Further adventures awaited the artist not least on the way home being shipwrecked on the Andaman Islands, where the survivors had to draw lots to decide who should be eaten. Zoffany then had the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first Royal Academician cannibal. It is interesting to speculate why Zoffany does not enjoy the same status today as his contemporaries. His conversation pieces, although extremely well painted, lack the humour, satirical edge and greater imaginative powers of Hogarth and his precise realist style does suffers in comparison with the romanticism of Gainsborough, but his neglect in this country does seems unjustified. In this exhibition we are reminded of his prodigious talent as a painter and as an artist who was also a joyful commentator on the life and times of the Georgian period.