This is a bustling exhibition with a fantastic selection of the eighteenth-century artist Johan Zoffany’s work. The exhibition is arranged in themes which presents very useful comparisons. There’s a sense of Zoffany observing the society around him, hence the title, but the observations often have a sense of humour and mischief.
The exhibition shows Zoffany as the theatre artist interested in capturing a moment in performance. For example the portrait of Thomas King as Touchstone in As You Like It attempts to present a portrait of an actor as if captured in the Forest of Arden rather as if he is on stage. The portrait od Garrick and Mrs Pritchard in Give Me the Daggers (from Macbeth) is clearly a portrait of the two actors as if on stage. It was great seeing this painting next to David Garrick and Mrs Cibber as Jaffier and Belvidera in Venice Preserv’d because it illustrates how much Garrick holding the dagger could be taken from a scene from Macbeth.
This exhibition also presents Zoffany as the court painter with George III in his red jacket and a pendent piece showing Queen Charlotte with a beautiful blue dress and complemented by the pink flowers and cerise drape. As you leave this room there is a portrait of the royal family with George III in the Apollo Belvedere pose, which illustrates Zoffany’s interest in the ‘Old Masters’.
For me the most interesting images are those of the Royal Academy. I have always been intrigued by The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy. Zoffany looks out at the viewer from the corner and Joshua Reynolds is portrayed with his hearing aid. The two female Academicians are present as portraits behind the male nude because they weren’t allowed to be present. The accompanying catalogue usefully identifies each Academician.
In one of the last rooms is a collection of works with India as the subject matter. These are glimpses of a colonial past. There’s something of the gothic in some of these pairings and I thought of Joseph Wright of Derby, and artist I wouldn’t normally think of when looking at Zoffany’s work.
This is a fantastic exhibition. It’s well worth visiting and much quieter than the Hockney exhibition downstairs. At least here is the time and space to really look at the pairings and think about them.
Postle, Martin ed (2011) Johann Zoffany RA. Society Observed. Yale University