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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Johan Zoffany

Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-77, Johan Zoffany
Pounci, our coffee table
conversation piece.
Just about everyone has heard the term, "conversation piece." Usually it refers to some unusual knickknack sitting on a coffee table serving no other purpose than to keep dust from settling in its footprint. I suppose the term originated in refer-ence to an item being a convenient subject of strained conversation during lulls when no other topics arose. We've got any number of them though they never appear on the coffee table. We've got a cat named Pounci which thinks that's her prerogative. In effect she's made herself our live feline conversation piece. As conversation pieces go, I've never considered it worth the effort to persuade her otherwise. She has, in fact, dutifully precipitate a conversation or two over the years. Actually, conversation not withstanding, the term denoted small paintings, not quite miniatures, and not tiny sculptural knickknacks, though they some-times sat on their own little easels. Most often they were family group portraits. One of the painters responsible for such works was the German-born, but largely British, portrait artist named Johan Zoffany.

Zoffany enjoyed painting himself "in character"
Johan Zoffany Self-portrait as
David with the head of Goliath, 1755
He was, indeed, of Bohemian origin. Johannes Josephus Zaufallij was born in Frankfurt in 1733. Following his training in southern Germany and later, Rome, Zoffany arrived in London around 1760 at the age of twenty-seven, where he was to remain for the next fifty years until his death in 1810. His Self-portrait as David with the head of Goliath, (left), from 1755, says much about the young artist's ego and personality. He was twenty-two at the time. Zoffany initially worked with the clockmaker, Stephen Rambolt, painting vignettes for his clock faces. However, by 1764 Zoffany was enjoying the patronage of the royal family. King George III and Queen Charlotte loved his charmingly informal scenes such as Queen Charlotte and Her Two Eldest Sons (below), from 1765, in which the queen is shown with two of her children, inside Buckingham House. (If that's informal, it's hard to imagine a formal portrait.) He also was popular with the Austrian Imperial family as well and in 1776 was created "Baron" by the Empress Maria Theresa.

Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons, 1765, Johan Zoffany
David Garrick in Vanbrugh's
Provoked Wife,  1763, Johann Zoffany
In 1769, Johan Zoffany was a founding member of the new Royal Academy, and came to enjoyed great popularity for his society and theatrical portraits. He painted many prominent actors and actresses. One in particular, David Garrick in Vanbrugh's Provoked Wife (right) dating from 1763, I found especially humorous. Zoffany was a master of what has been called the "theatrical conversation piece", a sub-set of the "conversation piece" genre mentioned earlier, which arose with the middle classes in the 18th century. This art item actually developed mostly in the Netherlands and France before becoming popular in Britain from about 1720. Zoffany has been described by one critic as "the real creator and master of this genre."

The portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72,  Johan Zoffany
George III, 1771, Johann Zoffany
Over the years, Zoffany's little con-versation pieces grew into gargantuan group portraits heavily cluttered with minute details. He was especially known for producing paintings with large casts of people and works of art, each easily recognizable by their contemporaries. In paintings like The Tribuna of the Uffizi (top) he carried this fidelity to an extreme degree. The Tribuna was already displayed in the typically cluttered 18th-century manner with many objects hanging in a small area. Zoffany not only stacked an incredible number of paintings high on the walls, he then added to the overwhelming clutter by having other works brought into the small octagonal gallery space from other parts of the Uffizi.

Plunder of the King's Wine Cellar, 10th August 1792, Johan Zoffany
Zoffany's Plunder of the King's Wine Cellar, 10th August, 1793 (above) depicts a contemporary incident from the French Revolution, and is typical of the artist's daring inclusion of large numbers of figures in his compositions. As he became more and more successful, Zoffany lived in India for a time, where his Cock Fight (below) originated around 1785. On one trip abroad, during his return to England, he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands (located between India and Malaysia). The survivors held a lottery in which the loser (a sailor) was eaten. The 20th-century art historian, William Dalrymple, thus describes Zoffany as having been "the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal."

Cock Fight, 1784-86, Johann Zoffany, is set in India.

Charles Townley and Friends in his Library,
1782, Zoffany


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