Byline: Brian Sewell
JOHAN ZOFFANY RA: SOCIETY OBSERVED Royal Academy, W1 [bar] OHANNES Josephus Zauffaly was born near Frankfurt in 1733, the son of a court cabinet maker and architect (this pairing of professions is instructive) to the eminent Prince of Thurn und Taxis. Apprenticed to a local painter and engraver, Martin Speer, at 17 he left for Rome, Naples and Venice, as had Speer before him, walking all the way; in these cities he absorbed contemporary Italian influences, hobnobbed with other German painters and studied the profitable business of portraiture. At 20, in 1753, he returned to Germany but Rome and its pleasures -- the easily procured company of willing women (of whom he never tired) -- drew him back to study under Mengs, the most significant of German painters in Italy, though only five years older than himself. It was during this second Italian period that he began to call himself Zoffany, the name by which he is known in England almost as an Englishman and certainly as a major English painter much favoured by King George III and his Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
Did they, and particularly Charlotte, who was slow to learn English and never lost her German accent, find him compatible because he was German? Possibly; he too had no English when he reached London in 1760 and later surviving letters are an indication of his accent -- "I have Gust sent a portrait of the Grand Duck's to Wiena and am ordert to du a Famely pictur ... as pick as Leiff ... wen til Fenischt I schal du noting more ..."; and one of George's small pleasures was taking carriage rides with Zoffany and gossiping for an hour or two. That they acquired so many of his paintings may be a reason for his obscurity, compared with the posthumous reputations of Gainsborough and Reynolds, his near contemporaries, for not until Anthony Blunt began, in 1946, to open the Royal Collection to the public, was there much awareness of him; indeed it could be argued that no one cared tuppence about Zoffany after his death in 1810, and that it was not until an exhibition of his work was mounted by the National Portrait Gallery in 1976, its curator Mary Webster, that any of my generation had an informed or coherent view of his work. Building on that exhibition for nearly 40 years, she has now published the be-all and end-all of a book ( Johan Zoffany, Yale [pounds sterling]75) weaving his life into his art and both into the several societies in which he moved: and at the Royal Academy, of which Zoffany was a founder member nominated by the King himself, we have another exhibition, intended to re-evaluate "the extraordinary life and career of this briliant and enigmatic artist".
Alas, it is too small and, crowded and cramped, will be uncomfortable for visitors. With Hockney hogging the main floor of the Academy, poor Zoffany is hidden away in an attic that is as gloomy as a cellar, the number of paintings exhibited far fewer than the number in the catalogue, their impact weakened by a plethora of negligible prints, drawings and even knick-knacks. Nevertheless, even if only an hors d'oeuvres riches rather than a banquet, it is a sound introduction to a painter with a very wide range of experience and patronage.
We see him first as a young European, finding his way into an international grand style of history painting, the subjects classical and biblical, allegorical and decently erotic, at a level of skill that now seems improbably precocious, the compositions competently complex, the references antique and contemporary, the mannerisms residually baroque and incipiently rococo. Is there a first-year student downstairs in the Academy's Schools who could paint himself as mischievously as did Zoffany at 23, as David with the Head of Goliath (though the penis joke is a preposterous 21st-century perception), or a last-year student who could match The Triumph of Venus, an erotic bedroom picture perhaps painted for the Archbishop of Trier in the last months before Zoffany left for London? …