Creating Magic: Johann Zoffany

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Today's "Feel Art Again" is a double-header. First up is this post on Johann Zoffany, followed by a post delving into his painting "The Tribuna of the Uffizi." Read both to get the full story on this talented artist.

Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) was a German-born English painter and favored portraitist of King George III and Queen Charlotte. It was said that when Zoffany was given a paintbrush, magic was created.

1. Johann Zoffany, who ran away from home at age 13 to study in Rome, was only able to move to England 12 years later due to the dowry he received upon marrying his wife. Once in England, though, he was well paid as the portraitist of the royal family. He painted George III, Charlotte, and their children in "charmingly informal scenes," making him the first artist to depict the king's family so informally. (While portraits such as "Queen Charlotte with her two eldest sons," shown above, may appear formal to us today, at the time it was considered less formal than the standard royal portrait.)

2. As "the real creator and master of [the] genre," Zoffany was well-known for his "theatrical conversation pieces." The portraits depicted prominent actors in character, often with scenery behind them. It's fitting, then, that Zoffany is referenced in the theatrical production The Pirates of Penzance, by Gilbert & Sullivan. In it, the Major-General sings of being able to distinguish works by Raphael from works by Zoffany.

3. Zoffany returned to Italy in 1772 and stayed for 5 years. While there, he was commissioned—or "commanded," as the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it—by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria to paint a portrait of the Tuscan royal family (her son's family). Apparently, the empress was so impressed with the portrait that she made Zoffany a baron of the Austrian empire in 1778.

4. In William Dalrymple's 2002 history book White Mughals, he writes:

"The Frankfurt-born Zoffany (1734-1810) lived in Lucknow for two and a half years"¦ On his way back to England"¦ 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 become a cannibal.

Whether such a cannibalistic incident actually occurred, however, is uncertain "“ no other Zoffany sources seem to reference the shipwreck and consumption of a sailor.

5. Known to be arrogant about his own art, Zoffany reputedly had "outstanding" arguments with other artists on a regular basis. He would then express his opinions in his art by drawing caricatures of artists who had displeased him or who he didn't like.

See our October post on Mary Moser for a bonus fact about Zoffany's painting, "The Academicians of the Royal Academy."

A larger version of "Queen Charlotte with her two eldest sons" is available here.

Fans should check out the collections of Zoffany's works in the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Norfolk Museums, and the Art Renewal Center; and his biography by Lady Victoria Manners and Dr. G.C. Williamson.

"Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.

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February 4, 2010 - 5:00am
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