"Johann Zoffany RA: Society Observed"

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"Johann Zoffany RA: Society Observed" Yale Center for British Art. October 27, 2011-February 12, 2012

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 die 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 Zoffanys 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 Zoffanys 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 die 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. …