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Johan Zoffany, Zoffani or Zauffelij was a German neo-classical* painter, active mainly in England. His works appear in many prominent British national galleries such as the National Gallery, London, the Tate Gallery and in the Royal Collection.
Johan Zoffany was born Johannes Josephus Zaufallij in Frankfurt on 13 March 1733. 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 traveled 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 royal family, and in 1776 was created 'Baron' by the archduchess Maria Theresa.
Johann Zoffany was a Freemason and was initiated into the Craft on December 19, 1763 at The Old King's Lodge No 28.
Zoffany, a founding member in 1769 of the new Royal Academy of London*, 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 eighteenth 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' and 'a thoroughly bad painter' simultaneously, which rather denigrates this genre.
In the latter part of his life, Zoffany was especially noted for producing huge paintings with large casts of people and objets d'art, all readily recognizable to their contemporaries. In paintings such as 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 in to the small octagonal gallery space from other parts of the Uffizi.
Though Zoffany made several visits to continental Europe and India in his lifetime, he remained in Britain, dying at his home at Strand-on-the-Green, 11 November 1810. He is buried in the churchyard of St Anne's Church, Kew. The painter Thomas Gainsborough was, by that artist's own request, later buried nearby.
In the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, by Gilbert and Sullivan, the Major-General sings in his eponymous song of being able to distinguish works by Raphael from works by Gerard Dou and Zoffany.
"The Frankfurt-born Zoffany (1734-1810) lived in Lucknow, India, for two and a half years, staying much of the time with Claude Martin. One of the paintings was Colonel Mordant's Cock Fight, which included, Martin, Ozias Humphrey and Zoffany himself. On his way back to England (where he had settled in the 1750s) he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. Lots having been drawn among the starving survivors, a young sailor was duly eaten. Zoffany may thus be said with some confidence to have been the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal."
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. (London : Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.)
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, the first full biography was published, Johan Zoffany: Artist and Adventurer by Penelope Treadwell (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.
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