Johan Zoffany was born Johannes Josephus Zoffaly in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1733. His father Anton Zoffaly was a court cabinet maker and architect to Alexander Ferdinand, Prince of Thurn and Taxis and it was at the Prince’s court that young Johan was brought up. When the Prince took up residence in Regensburg, Zoffany served as an apprentice to the local painter, Martin Speer. In 1750, at the age of 17 when he had completed his apprenticeship Johann travelled to Rome and studied with the portrait painter, Agostino Masucci. In 1757, now back in Germany, Zoffany was commissioned by the Elector of Trier to paint frescoes and paintings for his new palace at Trier and his Ehrenbreitstein Palace in Koblenz.
In 1760 Zoffany travelled to London. Here he was initially employed by Benjamin Wilson, the painter and printmaker and it was from his connection with Wilson that Zoffany came to the attention of one of Wilson’s patrons, the actor and theatre impresario, David Garrick, and he commissioned Zoffany to paint a number of theatrical works which featured the actor in famous theatrical roles. Garrick also had Zoffany paint some conversation pieces of he and his wife set in the grounds of his Hampton estates. The term Conversation Piece is an informal group portrait, often full length but usually small in scale in a domestic interior or garden setting and was a very popular art genre in 18th century England. They would often portray a group of people apparently engaged in genteel conversation or some activity. Usually the group would be members of a family, but sometimes friends would be included. In some conversation pieces groups of friends or members of a society were depicted. It was for these works that Zoffany made his name in England.
Zoffany’s fame spread among the London elite and commissions started to roll in for his portraiture and conversation pieces. One such commission came from the Prime Minister, John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, who wanted Zoffany to paint portraits of his three sons and another portrait of his three daughters. It was thanks to Bute that Zoffany was introduced to King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte in 1763. Both were impressed by his work and commissioned Zoffany to paint portraits of their family. The Royal Academy of Arts had been founded in December 1768 through a personal act of King George III. Its task was to promote the arts of design in Britain through education and exhibition. There were originally thirty four founder members, with Sir Joshua Reynolds its first President. The rules stated that there would be forty Academicians. In a Council of the Royal Academy in November 1769 it was reported to those present that “his Majesty had been pleased to appoint Mr Johan Zoffany to be one of the forty Academicians”. Zoffany was now a Nominated Member of the Academy.
George III also set him a task to paint a group portrait of the Royal Academy members which Zoffany duly completed in 1772 and was entitled The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy. Zoffany himself is seen with brush and palette in his hand at the far left of the painting. The king and his wife were delighted with the painting and Queen Charlotte commissioned Zoffany to paint an even larger and more elaborate conversation piece set in the Tribuna of the Uffizi, which would depict the art treasures held within the octagonal room. Zoffany travelled to Italy to carry out the commission in 1772 and did not complete the ambitious work until 1777.
Zoffany returned to England with his masterpiece but was distressed to find that his genre of conversation pieces had gone out of vogue and his work was no longer required by his wealthy and fashionable clients. He could have reverted to his other artistic forte, that of portraiture, but at the time he had many very successful rivals for that type of work, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds as well as the emerging “new kid on the bloc” George Romney.
By 1783 Zoffany had all but given up hope of receiving commissions for his work in England and decided to travel to India in his search for rich patrons. For the next six years Zoffany bided his time in the sub-continent travelling between Calcutta and Lucknow completing commissions he received from the wealthy British colonials and the local Lucknow aristocracy. Once again he had the opportunity to carry on with his beloved conversation pieces. Such was the popularity of his work that he was inundated with commissions and by the time he returned to England in 1789 he had made his fortune.
Zoffany died in 1810, aged 77. He was one of the greatest exponents of the English Conversation piece with its Rococo flamboyance and will also be remembered for the charm of his theatrical works depicting scenes from popular plays of the day.
My Daily Art Display featured painting today by Zoffany is looked upon as one of his greatest works. It is his grand conversation piece entitled The Tribuna of the Uffizi, which he started in 1772 and completed in 1777. Going to Italy at the behest of his Royal patrons, George III and his wife Queen Charlotte, to paint this work had not been his original plan as in 1772 he had hoped to secure a passage on Captain Cook’s vessel when he set sail on his second voyage to the South Seas but the offer of a sea voyage never materialised and so he took up the commission from Queen Charlotte to travel to Florence and record in a painting the collection of art and sculpture which the Grand Duke of Tuscany had put together in the Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Queen Charlotte had envisaged this work would be a pendant to Zoffany’s earlier work owned by the English rulers entitled Academicians of the Royal Academy which he completed in 1772 and was well received by the royal family.
The Tribuna was an octagonal room within the Uffizi Gallery, designed in the late 1580’s by Bernardo Buontalenti in which the art collection of Francesco de’ Medici would be housed. In 1737 it came into the possession of Pietro Leopoldo, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The commission was a great challenge to the talents of Zoffany as the Tribuna art collection was one of the greatest in all Europe. Was it a true reproduction of what was there at the time? Not quite, as Zoffany had to experiment and alter the perspective of the room in order to incorporate all the various pieces of sculpture and in some cases he had to reduce the size of individual pieces. The collection of art in the Tribuna during the time Zoffany was painting it was also going through a slight reorganisation and this gave him the excuse to make his own decision as to what would be on display. In doing so he omitted some paintings which were actually on display and added others which although housed in the Uffizi were never hung in the Tribuna. One of these was Titian’s Venus of Urbino which we see in the central foreground. There were also a number of paintings by Guido Reni which were housed in the Pitti Palace but were transported to the Uffizi just for Zoffany to copy!
There are twenty five paintings shown in this work. How many can you identify? All I will tell you is that amongst them there are six by Raphael, three by Guido Reni, two by Titian, two by Rubens and one each by Carracci, Corregio and Holbein.
Besides the works of art, sculptures and other artefacts, the painting is populated by no fewer than twenty two men all of whom were either connected with the Uffizi Gallery or were a miscellany of Grand Tourists. So who were these Grand Tourists and what was the Grand Tour? The Grand Tour was the traditional trip around Europe taken by mainly upper-class wealthy young European men, although primarily the term is associated with the British elite and nobility. It reached the height of its popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and it was a kind of rite of passage for this wealthy elite. One amusing aspect of Zoffany’s inclusion of the men was that during the many years he worked on the painting he would add and remove people as he saw fit and would tell some of the travellers they had to sit for him as the George III had specifically asked for their portrait to be included. Of course that was never the case. The one thing Zoffany was adamant about was that he would not portray a woman within the group. It is thought that this could be due to the fact that he incorporated some lewd visual jokes into the painting. Look at the group of men to the right who are staring at and fascinated by the backside of the Venus de Medici. This sculpture had been well-known for the lewd comments made about it by the Grand Tourists. In Vicci Coltman’s book entitled Classical Sculpture and the Culture of Collecting in Britain since 1760 she quotes a comment made by Charles Townley, the English country gentleman and antiquary who had made a couple of Grand Tours whilst Zoffany was painting his masterpiece. Townley had said that he had been told that:
“…the sight of the Venus in the Florence Gallery will give you some yammering after a Tuscan Whore…”
It was not just the heterosexual innuendos that made Zoffany’s painting risqué, but his addition of two well known homosexuals, Thomas Patch, in the right foreground in conversation with another homosexual, Sir Horace Mann. Patch is pointing at the sculpture The Wrestlers and their addition in the painting was to prove a step too far.
Zoffany returned to England in 1779 and delivered the painting to his royal patrons. Queen Charlotte was horrified to see the room cluttered by so many men and worse still to incorporate lewd innuendos of both a heterosexual and homosexual nature. She was especially shocked that Zoffany had included portraits of the two infamous homosexuals into the scene. George III reluctantly paid for the work but had it placed out of sight in a room in Kew Palace. The artist Joseph Farrington was active in the social, cultural, and professional art world of his time and he kept a daily diary from 13 July 1793 until his death, missing only a few days. This diary often referred to the London art world. The diary eventually constituted 16 volumes and in one of the volumes Farrington recounts a conversation between George III and the artist William Beechey in which he quotes the king as saying of Zoffany’s Tribuna of the Uffizi:
“…[The King] expressed wonder at Zoffany having done so improper a thing as to introduce the portraits of Sir Horace Man[n], [Thomas] Patch, & others, who were considered as men addicted to improper practices – He sd. The Queen wd. Not suffer the picture to be placed in any of Her apartments…”
It is thought it was not so much that Zoffany took it upon himself to add the twenty two Grand Tourists into the painting but it was the character of some of them that shocked and offended George III and his Queen. Zoffany never again received a royal commission and from that day on lost their patronage.
This is a beautiful work and one of unbelievable detail. I stood before it yesterday when I visited the preview of the Johan Zoffany RA, Society Observed exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. If you are in London you should make a point on visiting this exhibition which runs until June 10th.
Tomorrow I will give you the answer to the names of the paintings and the artists who painted them