In his early years in England, Johan Zoffany was as much in demand as a portrait artist as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Following in the footsteps of Hogarth, for whom he had the greatest admiration, he developed the art of the ‘conversation piece’ – the group portrait – and made the genre uniquely his own.
Zoffany was born in 1733 to German carpenter Anton Zauffaley, who worked at the courts of Prince Alexander Ferdinand in Frankfurt and Regensburg. The painter took his early apprenticeships in Ellwangen and Regensburg, studying under artist Martin Speer, and then Rome, where he fell under the spell of printmaker and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Zoffany moved to London in 1760, finding work painting pastoral vignettes for the clockmaker Stephen Rimbault. From there he joined the studio of painter Benjamin Wilson whose passion for the theatre opened the door to London’s leading thespian, David Garrick. Under Garrick’s patronage, Zoffany popularised and perfected the art of the theatrical ‘conversation piece’, which captured the actor on stage in character, thereby acting as his publicist and provider of prints for his doting fans.
The artist became painter at the court of King George III from 1764, becoming a particular favourite of the Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg, who felt at home with the talented German-born artist who spoke her own language and depicted her growing young family in a way that was both touching and unusually informal. The artist was nominated by the King himself to membership of the Royal Academy of Arts on its foundation in 1768.
By the end of the 1760s Zoffany’s professional standing had never been higher. However, his extravagance with money was beginning to cause him serious difficulties. To escape his precarious situation he accepted the chance in 1772 to accompany the naturalist Joseph Banks on the second Cook expedition to the South Seas, but their ship was deemed unseaworthy and the voyage was cancelled. In desperation, Zoffany turned to the Queen, who agreed to send him to Florence to paint the Grand Duke’s renowned collection of paintings in the gallery of the Uffizi known as The Tribuna.
Seven years and many diversions later, he returned to England as Baron von Zoffany, a title awarded him by the Empress Maria Theresia of Austria for services rendered in the form of a series of portraits of members of her family and grandchildren. Back in London, the artist found himself out of favour at court and deserted by the fashionistas whose patronage was now directed towards Gainsborough, George Romney and Thomas Lawrence. Lured by the possibility of lucrative commissions from Indian rulers and wealthy members of the East India Company, Zoffany voyaged to Calcutta. The painter spent six years in the subcontinent, travelling widely and capturing the lives of the elite of British India.
It is extraordinary, then, that given his key role in the history of 18th-century British art, Zoffany should have been so overlooked by art historical literature. His works hang in our most important private and public collections, yet few know much about this artist whose works they recognise and admire. With this timely and entertaining biography, published to mark the bicentenary of the artist’s death, author Penelope Treadwell redresses the balance, highlighting the significance of Zoffany’s work and revealing the fascinating life of this artist and adventurer.