NEW HAVEN - A painter’s output over an entire career - especially a career as glittering as Johan Zoffany’s - can shed valuable light on a distant epoch. And who wouldn’t rather look at pictures like Zoffany’s than read another wise and well-judged historical textbook?
But was this German-born court painter and English society portraitist a great artist?
A chance to decide is on offer until mid-February at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. If you are obliged to travel to see it, do. The show, which will move to the Royal Academy in London in March, is richly rewarding.
In range, skill, and accomplishment, Zoffany ranks with Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth, and Joseph Wright of Derby in the annals of 18th-century British art.
But being German-born, peripatetic, and somewhat mercurial, Zoffany (1733-1810) has never quite qualified for inclusion in the British pantheon - never mind that he was a court painter to George III, a founding member of the Royal Academy, and esteemed by all his peers.
This exhibition aims to put things straight. Organized by Martin Postle of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, with assistance from Gillian Forrester, a curator of prints and drawings there, the show seeks to retire the idea that Zoffany was a mere painter of detail and notable only as “a rich visual resource for historical data,’’ Postle writes.
That idea dies, as far as I’m concerned, as soon as you look at the pictures, which are - in spite of moments of stiffness and laboring contrivance - fresh in color, lively in composition, wittily conceived, and suavely executed.
That said, it’s true that the paintings are, also, full of detail - or, as I prefer to think of it, character. Inevitably, they make you curious about a figure whose memoirs one longs to read and put on the shelf beside Casanova’s.
Like Casanova (if not on quite the same scale), Zoffany was amorous, in that charming but heedless manner the 18th century did so much to promote. He was dogged by rumors of bigamy when it came to light that his first wife, who had returned alone to Germany less than a year after they moved to England, was still married to him, even as he presented his mistress, Mary Thomas, as “Mrs. Zoffany’’ in English society.
A portrait of Mary, painted by Zoffany as the rumors reached a crescendo, shows her hands languidly crossed on her lap, a wedding ring conspicuously on show. She’s attractive and very alive. She gazes off to the right with a look of large-eyed warning or rebuke.
She and Zoffany first became entangled when she was a teenager - either 14 or 16 (the record is unclear). On the prowl for “victims of self-gratification,’’ as Mary’s friend Charlotte Papendiek later put it, he followed her back to her parents’ modest house.
He left for Italy shortly afterward. But he had made Mary pregnant. Realizing this, she stowed away on his boat, presenting herself to him only after the voyage was underway. He told her his wife in Germany was dead, and seems to have married her the following year in Italy; again, the record is unclear.
They had a son, who died at 16 months, when he fell down a flight of stairs, and subsequently four daughters. He also had children by a mistress he took in India in the 1780s. When his first wife really did die, in 1805, Mary and Zoffany were married (again?) in a private Protestant ceremony in London.
Zoffany, writes Postle in the catalog, “was lanky, with a pockmarked face and a squint. He was also fiercely intelligent, confident, sociable and charming, especially to attractive young women.’’
An inveterate self-portraitist, he tended to make himself more attractive, if Postle’s description is to be believed, than he was. But in none of the pictures does he exactly qualify as handsome.
A fascinating 1779 panel, painted on both sides, suggests the healthy dollop of mischief that seems to have infused his personality. One side of the panel, which Zoffany painted as he and Mary were leaving Italy for England, is a religious painting. It is called “Repose on the Flight Into Egypt,’’ and it’s a pastiche in the manner of Correggio, Parma’s great 16th-century painter.
On the other side is a self-portrait. It shows Zoffany midway through donning a Franciscan friar’s brown habit. Behind him on the wall is a shelf with - is that what it looks like?! Yes! - a condom hanging from a hook. There’s also a skull, bottle, rosary, and reproduction of Titian’s incomparably saucy “Venus of Urbino.’’
The catalog is almost worth buying for the four-column entry on this painting alone. From it we learn all about the court of Parma and its Duke Ferdinando, who - even as he retreated from his royal wife “into a kind of infantilism’’ and sought refuge in a “maniacal attachment to religion’’ - managed to impregnate her nine times and, at the same time, indulge a spectacularly uninhibited fondness for pretty young peasant women.
Zoffany’s self-portrait with friar’s habit and condom appears to allude to the duke’s double-sided life. But it also presents Zoffany himself as a partygoer, as he dons a popular fancy costume, the monk’s habit, in readiness for a night of orgiastic entertainments.
Distracted by details like these, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture of Zoffany’s career. Born in 1733 near Frankfurt, he was baptized Johannes Josephus Zauffaly. His father was a master cabinetmaker. Intent from an early age on a career in art, he studied in Germany under local artist Martin Speer, before setting off for Rome, in 1750 - at age 17, apparently on foot.
After returning briefly to Germany, he eventually studied in Rome under Anton Raphael Mengs, who was only five years his senior and may have modeled for Zoffany’s extraordinary, homoerotic “David With the Head of Goliath,’’ his masterpiece.
In 1760, he moved to England and changed his name to Zoffany. He was deeply involved in London’s theatrical and musical communities - he met Leopold Mozart, who was traveling through, and was friends with Johann Christian Bach - and relied on them, as much as on English aristocrats and members of the court, for commissions. One marvelous gallery here is devoted to his paintings of famous actors - including David Garrick, his most important early patron - in famous roles, mid-performance.
He painted the king, who nominated him to membership of the newly established Royal Academy, and almost went with his friend, the great botanist Joseph Banks, on a second journey with Captain James Cook to the South Seas.
When that plan fell through, he accepted an invitation from Queen Charlotte to paint the Tribuna of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. The resulting painting, his most ambitious, is missing from the New Haven show. The queen didn’t like it, but Zoffany was by now (when he wasn’t being accused of bigamy) being showered with honors: The Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa made him a baron of the Holy Roman Empire; he was elected to artist academies in Florence, Bologna, Cortona, and Parma; and he was invited to submit a self-portrait to the collection of the Uffizi. He did; it’s at once dreadfully hammy and deeply engrossing.
After several years back in England, where he was part of the lively intellectual circle of collector and antiquarian Charles Townley (look out for a bravura painting of Townley’s library, stuffed with antique statues), Zoffany decided to travel to India.
Wanting to “roll in gold dust,’’ as his fellow Royal Academician Paul Sandby wrote, he got more than he bargained for, including a second (Indian) family, and ill health. Nonetheless, he completed some very ambitious work. These final galleries contain portraits of Mughal princes, images of Indian architecture, elephants, tigers, funeral pyres, cock fights, and much else besides.
Zoffany’s great contribution to portraiture - the dominant strain in British art before the rise of the 19th-century landscape tradition - was to convert formal or fantastical portraits into “conversation pieces.’’ People, in other words, were placed in groups in evocative contexts, interacting with one another and with their surrounds in the manner of Dutch group portraits of the previous century.
For all their liveliness, the bias toward primitive storytelling in these paintings can make them seem cheesy to our eyes. But Zoffany’s mischievous intelligence, and his determinedly visual sense of humor, lift his finest works into something spirited, and more than a little charismatic.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.