Johan Zoffany

Zoffany, John Cuff and His Assistant (c.1772) Oil on canvas. Coll. H.M. Queen Elizabeth II

I just missed, by all accounts, a landmark exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, the first major exhibition devoted to Johan Zoffany (1733-1810). It just moved to the Royal Academy in London where it will stay until June 10th  2012. Try to see it if you can. Zoffany is not well-known in the U.S. and not much better known in England. I myself have not studied him much but he was unquestionably a great master. Born in Frankfurt, studying art nearby, he traveled to Rome in 1750 where he stayed for ten years. In London he gained the patronage of the King and Queen and was popular with the Austrian Royal Family as well. He traveled widely as far as India, painting some remarkable scenes there, but he maintained his home in London where he died in 1810. The most interesting biographical detail is that he was initiated as a Freemason in 1763, thereby entering a world of esotericism. Thomas Gainsborough so admired him that he requested to be buried nearby.

Robin Simon reviewing the exhibition when it was at Yale recently wrote: “Zoffany was perhaps the most compulsive self-portraitist of all, for ever popping up within a composition, even when he was not – as he so often was – creating yet another separate painting or drawing of himself.”1 As for the exhibition in London, catch it if you can. If you can’t, I’ll try to help by posting more on Zoffany in the near future. He’s a fascinating artist even on the superficial level. Underneath I think we’ll find a gold mine.

1. Robin Simon, "Zoffany at the Yale Center for British Art", British Art Journal 12, Winter 2011-12, p. 5

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