Subversive by Appointment to Mr and Mrs King
Darwent, Charles, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
A German-born observer of British society is eclipsed today by Gainsborough and Reynolds, but his pictures, decoded, are revealing Visual Art Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed Royal Academy LONDON
Was there ever a more ill-matched pair than George III and Queen Charlotte? I do not mean the royal couple themselves - as their marriage produced 15 children, we can assume that it was fond at the very least - but their portraits by Zoffany, in the show of his work at the Royal Academy.
On the left, the king, hefty, Hanoverian, not yet mad, with the wide-legged posture of a man in a pub. The trappings of George's kingship - his general's tricorne hat and sword - have been tossed aside, his Garter star is skew-whiff. The picture's austere background and ami du peuple pose seem almost republican. It would be interesting to see it next to Boilly's portrait of Robespierre, painted 20 years later.
By contrast, Charlotte is resolutely ancien rgime, all taffeta and lace, the queen paired with a vase (gilt, naturally) of peonies. The flavour here is of Vige Le Brun's 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette, the bosom friend of Charlotte whose murder in 1793 would shake the English queen to the core. What seems strange is not just that this domestic couple - Mr and Mrs King, as they called each other - should have been portrayed so very differently, but that they were painted in the same year (1771) and by the same man.
Particularly so because that man is Johan Zoffany, known to us in Britain as John. I can't remember the last Zoffany show I went to; actually, I can't remember having ever been to a Zoffany show at all. Eclipsed by home-grown rivals such as Gainsborough and Reynolds, the Frankfurt-born painter has languished in the critical shadows for decades. Too Classical, we say, too German; a creature of the Establishment, of academies and courts and clubs - an impression apparently confirmed by the title of this show, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed.
But not quite. Around the corner from the Kings is the kind of picture we think of as typically Zoffany-esque, The Tribuna of the Uffizi. A huge, 20-square-metre record of the Uffizi's Tribuna room, the picture is meticulous, exact. Commissioned by Queen Charlotte, it shows two dozen English Grand Tourists and diplomats poring over a similar number of works in the Florentine gallery's collection. Zoffany slaved over this conversation piece for six years. Every canvas in the picture can be identified, and all but one of the men: among them, the Hon Felton Hervey, the Earl of Winchilsea, Sir John Dick and Thomas Patch, Esq. Last, but not at all least, there is a portrait of Johan Zoffany.
It is easy to mistake The Tribuna of the Uffizi for something it is not. Painting minute but perfect versions of works by other artists - Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch, Rubens's Justus Lipsius and his Pupils - seems slavish. …