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Self-portrait as David with the head of Goliath, c. 1756, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
Johannes Josephus Zaufallij
13 March 1733
|Died||11 November 1810 (aged 77)|
Johan Joseph Zoffany, RA (born Johannes Josephus Zaufallij, 13 March 1733 – 11 November 1810) was a German neoclassical painter, active mainly in England, Italy and India. His works appear in many prominent British collections such as the National Gallery, London, the Tate Gallery and in the Royal Collection, as well as institutions in Europe, India, the United States and Australia. His name is sometimes spelled Zoffani or Zauffelij (on his grave, it is spelled Zoffanij).
Of noble Hungarian and Bohemian origin, Johan Zoffany was born near Frankfurt on 13 March 1733, the son of a cabinet maker and architect in the court of Alexander Ferdinand, 3rd Prince of Thurn and Taxis. He undertook an initial period of study in a sculptor's workshop in Ellwangen in the 1740s (possibly at the workshop of sculptor Melchior Paulus) and later at Regensburg with the artist Martin Speer. In 1750, he travelled to Rome, entering the studio of Agostino Masucci. In autumn 1760 he arrived in England, initially finding work with the clockmaker Stephen Rimbault (Zoffany's fine portrait of whom is now in the Tate Gallery), painting vignettes for his clocks.
By 1764 he was enjoying the patronage of the royal family, King George III and Queen Charlotte, for his charmingly informal scenes such as Queen Charlotte and Her Two Eldest Children (1765), in which the queen is shown at her toilette, with her eldest children, inside Buckingham House, and another, outdoors, with her children and her brothers. He also was popular with the Austrian Imperial family and in 1776 was created "Baron" by the Empress Maria Theresa.
A founding member of the new Royal Academy in 1768, Zoffany enjoyed great popularity for his society and theatrical portraits, painting many prominent actors and actresses, in particular David Garrick, the most famous actor of his day – Garrick as Hamlet and Garrick as King Lear – often in costume. He was a master of what has been called the "theatrical conversation piece", a sub-set of the "conversation piece" genre that arose with the middle classes in the 18th century. (The conversation piece – or conversazione – was a relatively small, though not necessarily inexpensive, informal group portrait, often of a family group or a circle of friends. This genre developed in the Netherlands and France and became popular in Britain from about 1720.) Zoffany has been described by one critic as "the real creator and master of this genre".
In the later part of his life, Zoffany was especially known for producing huge paintings with large casts of people and works of art, all readily recognizable by their contemporaries. In paintings like The Tribuna of the Uffizi he carried this fidelity to an extreme degree: the Tribuna was already displayed in the typically cluttered 18th-century manner (i.e. with many objects hanging in a small area, stacked many paintings high on the wall), but Zoffany added to the sense of clutter by having other works brought into the small octagonal gallery space from other parts of the Uffizi.
Zoffany spent the years 1783 to early 1789 in India, where he painted portraits including the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, and the Nawab Wazir of Oudh, Asaf-ud-Daula; an altarpiece of the Last Supper (1787) for St John’s Church of England, Calcutta; and a vibrant history painting, Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Fight (1784-86) (Tate), described by historian Maya Jasanoff as ‘easily the liveliest illustration of early colonial India’. In the usual way, he sired several children by an Indian mistress, or ‘bibi’. Returning to England, he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. The survivors held a lottery in which the loser (a sailor) was eaten. William Dalrymple describes Zoffany as having been "the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal".
Around the age of 27, Zoffany married the daughter of a court official in Würzburg. She accompanied him to London, but returned to Germany within a decade or so. Zoffany left for Florence in 1772, followed by young Mary Thomas, the daughter of a London glovemaker, who was carrying his first child. Whether they married in Europe is uncertain, though Zoffany’s portrait, Mary Thomas, the Artist’s second wife, c1781-82, shows her wearing a wedding ring. Following the death of his first wife in 1805, Zoffany married ‘Mary Thomas … Spinster’ in accordance with Church of England rites.
Zoffany and Mary Thomas had five children, including a son who died tragically in infancy, and four daughters. Their second daughter, Cecilia (1779-1830) was involved in a well-publicised child custody case in Guernsey in 1825. Zoffany died at his home at Strand-on-the-Green on 11 November 1810. He is buried in the churchyard of St Anne's Church, Kew. The painters Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Kirby are coincidentally buried nearby.
Despite the high profile the artist enjoyed in his day, as court painter in London and Vienna, Zoffany has, until very recently, been curiously overlooked by art historical literature. In 1920, Lady Victoria Manners and Dr. G. C. Williamson published John Zoffany, R.A., his life and works. 1735–1810 – the first in-depth study of the artist and his work, privately printed, presumably at some cost (with 330pp, numerous black/white and a few colour plates), in a limited edition of 500 copies.
In 1966, Oliver Millar published Zoffany and his Tribuna – the expanded and illustrated notes of a lecture given at the Courtauld in 1964, on Zoffany's celebrated Uffizi group-portrait now in the Royal Collection.
This was followed by Johan Zoffany, 1733–1810, Mary Webster's short but authoritative illustrated guide for the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London (14 January to 27 March 1977). In December 2009, Penelope Treadwell published the first full biography, Johan Zoffany: Artist and Adventurer, Paul Holberton Publishing.
This biography traces Zoffany's footsteps, from his youth in Germany, through his first years in London – working for clockmaker Stephen Rimbault – to his growing success as society and theatrical portraitist and founder-member of the Royal Academy, and following him on his Grand Tour and sojourn in India. Illustrated in full colour with more than 250 works by Zoffany and his peers, many of which are in private collections, Treadwell's biography provides a timely reassessment of the artist's life and work.
In 2011 Mary Webster published her long-awaited and splendidly produced monograph on the artist: Johan Zoffany 1733–1810 (Yale University Press). In 2011–12 the Yale Center for British Art and the Royal Academy, London, showed an exhibition Johan Zoffany, RA: Society Observed, curated by Martin Postle, with Gillian Forrester and MaryAnne Stevens, with a catalogue of the same name, edited by Martin Postle and including much original research. For a review of this and Mary Webster's biography, see Edward Chaney, "Intentional Phallacies", The Art Newspaper, no. 234, April 2012, p. 71.
A 2014 book by David Wilson describes Zoffany’s relationship with Robert Sayer (1725–94). A leading publisher and seller of prints, maps and maritime charts in Georgian Britain, based in Fleet Street, London, Sayer organised the engraving of paintings by some leading artists of the day, most importantly Zoffany, and sold prints from the engravings. In this way he helped to secure Zoffany's international reputation. Sayer and the artist became longstanding friends as well as business associates. In 1781 Zoffany painted Robert Sayer in an important ‘conversation piece’. The Sayer Family of Richmond depicts Robert Sayer, his son, James, from his first marriage, and his second wife, Alice Longfield (née Tilson).
Behind the family group is the substantial villa on Richmond Hill overlooking the River Thames, built for Sayer between 1777 and 1780 to the designs of William Eves, a little known architect and property developer. On Sayer’s death in 1794 the house was to become the residence of a future king of Great Britain.
In recent decades, Zoffany’s paintings have provoked significant controversy. Mary Webster’s monumental study in 2011, while based on extensive research, has sometimes been seen as austere. Other scholars have drawn attention to the artist’s propensity for wry observations, risqué allusions and double meanings, so that many of his paintings conceal as much as they reveal.
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