Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) is alleged to have been the only member of Britain’s Royal Academy to practice cannibalism.
Legend has it that he was among the starving passengers and crew of a ship who ate a young sailor after being wrecked in the Indian Ocean.
The catalog of “Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed” doesn’t mention this episode, though it does unmask him as a bigamist. More importantly, this delightful exhibition at the RA in London reveals Zoffany as a bohemian and cosmopolitan painter who was a consummate master of one type of picture -- the so-called “conversation piece” -- though not outstanding at anything else.
Born Johannes Josephus Zaufallij in Frankfurt, and resident at different times in Italy, India and Britain, he led a wandering life, both geographically and artistically. As a result, historians have been puzzled where to place him. There isn’t much consensus on how good Zoffany was, nor whether he was really an English painter.
This exhibition shows Zoffany at his best when operating in a specifically British tradition -- as artistic heir to William Hogarth. Though trained in Germany and Rome, he came to maturity as a painter in London and that was where almost all his finest work was done.
His early pictures show him to have been a competent young artist without a distinctive style. During his 20s in Italy, Zoffany produced a series of lightly erotic mythological scenes in the late Baroque manner, which by the mid-18th century was running out of steam. Then, in 1760 he found his way to London, and two years later began working for the greatest actor-manager of the age, David Garrick.
Zoffany seems to have been recommended to Garrick by Hogarth himself. The pictures he produced for Garrick and other theatrical stars were in a genre that had been pioneered by Hogarth: portraits of actors, in character and costume, performing roles in their hit plays. Suddenly, Zoffany found his idiom. The mix of portraiture and fantasy, drama and realism is fresh and seemed to capture the mood of Dr. Johnson’s London. Pictures such as “Thomas King as Touchstone in ‘As You Like It’” (1780) virtually seat you in front of a Georgian stage.
The other type of painting in which Zoffany excelled was similar and also had a Hogarth precedent. The conversation piece is a group portrait in which the various figures interact. In other words, it is a miniature visual drama. In one example from 1771-2, the members of the then-new Royal Academy are gathered around the naked model in a life-class. In another spectacular picture, “The Tribuna of the Uffizi” (1772-7), Zoffany gathers an assortment of British aristocrats on the Grand Tour, surrounded by Old Master paintings and classical sculpture.
When Zoffany strayed from these two types of painting, he tended to fail. His attempt at a more formal group of George III and his family looks wooden. He also seemed to decline as a painter after he sailed to India in 1783. Although his pictures of Anglo-Indian life in Calcutta, Lucknow and elsewhere are fascinating as social documents they don’t have the quality of his earlier paintings.
The same is true of the work he did in his last years, when he seems to have suffered from dementia, and was unable to finish his paintings. At his best, Zoffany was an artist who wonderfully caught the chatty, quirky mood of 18th-century British life.
“Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed” is at the Royal Academy, London, through June 10. The exhibition is supported by Japan Tobacco International and Cox & Kings Ltd. Information: http//:www.royalacademy.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)