Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed at the Royal Academy of Arts

By Jennie Gillions | 13 March 2012
An image of an oil painting of a crowded art gallery
The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772–7). Oil on canvas© The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Exhibition: Johan Zoffany RA, Society Observed; Royal Academy of Arts, London, until June 10 2012

An exhibition of one artist’s work rarely contains such variety of style and subject as this. Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) was more than a painter – he was a valuable social commentator who completed an extraordinary body of work showing the rich diversity of life in the 18th century.

Despite this, his influence has been overlooked. Correcting the oversight requires a comprehensive exhibition, and that is exactly what the RA provides.

It begins with Zoffany’s early years in Germany and Italy, demonstrating the heavy influence of Renaissance European painting on Zoffany’s biblical/allegorical paintings. The inclusion of his only known still-life therefore seems at odds, but a retrospective would have been incomplete without it.

On his arrival in England in 1760, Zoffany quickly abandoned his classical style in favour of more dramatic, popular depictions of the theatre – pictures that lent themselves well to engravings and prints, thus bringing his work and the actors to a wider audience.

Zoffany painted theatre manager and actor David Garrick several times, in individual portraits and scenes of him acting.

Following on from the theatrical section is a room documenting both Zoffany’s association with the Royal Academy and with the court of King George III – diametrically opposed commissions again necessitating appropriately different styles of painting.

He was appointed as an Academician to the RA in 1769, the year after it was founded. The most interesting thing about this section is the inclusion in Zoffany’s paintings of people we now know by reputation; on just one wall there is a portrait of Gainsborough (circa 1772), a portrayal of Joshua Reynolds at a lecture given by the anatomist William Hunter, and a remarkable behind-the-scenes group portrait (1771-2) that George III later bought for 500 guineas.

An additional point of interest is the 18th century “Ecorché” figure – a moulded skeleton with flayed skin that would have been used in lectures.

Zoffany gained Academician status thanks to George III’s patronage, gained in 1764 and maintained until the late 1770s. Zoffany painted several formal individual portraits, as well as “conversation pieces” (informal group portraits in which the sitters engage with each other) of the royal children and Queen Charlotte’s brothers, emphasising the domestic aspects of court life.

As an outsider, Zoffany had a fresh perspective on social life and social aspiration that made his works original and popular, enabling him to effectively revive the “conversation piece” genre.

His friendships with his sitters give the pieces an appealing familiarity; Sir Lawrence Dundas With his Grandson oozes warmth, and there is pure joy in the painting of the Sharp family playing instruments on their barge.

Zoffany also found success abroad. Drawn to a peripatetic existence, he presumably jumped at the opportunity to go to Italy on a commission from Queen Charlotte.

This trip resulted in the extraordinary The Tribuna of the Uffizi, a “spot-the-famous-painting” work of an octagonal room in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

This piece, more than any, shows Zoffany’s impressive eye for detail – copying Raphael in miniature so it is still recognisable as a Raphael takes some skill.

The one real disappointment in the exhibition comes in the penultimate section, on Zoffany’s six-year spell in India (1783-9).

An engraving after Zoffany references what the room’s label calls his “remarkable” historical work Hyderberg on His Mission to Lord Cornwallis, but the original is absent with no explanation.

Aside from that, this room is perhaps the most compelling, containing portraits of Indian royalty and some gorgeous, atmospheric, atypical landscapes.

In his final years, back in England, Zoffany painted two politically charged pictures outlining his horror at the French Revolution, both of which are here in all their poignant, slightly gruesome glory.

There is also a late self-portrait – a large picture in contrast to the three small ones at the very start of the exhibition.

Because there are so many strands to this exhibition it can feel a little disjointed in places, but these self-portraits act as satisfying bookends, enclosing an exhibition about a man of enormous influence who definitely deserves this level of recognition.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday, closed Saturday). Tickets £3-£10. Book online.

More pictures:

An image of a painting of a room full of gentry
The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771–2). Oil on canvas© The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

An image of an oil painting of dignitaries aboard a boat centuries ago
The Sharp Family (1779–81). Oil on canvas© Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Lloyd-Baker Trustees
An image of an oil painting of a large gathering of people centuries ago
Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match (1784–86). Oil on canvas© 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
An image of an oil painting of a woman in regal wear in a drawing room
Queen Charlotte (1771). Oil on canvas© The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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