The Precision Portraitist

Some artists are better suited to black legends than others: Caravaggio, for example, killed a man in a duel; Salvator Rosa supposedly lived with bandits; Théodore Géricault painted still lifes of the severed heads and limbs of executed criminals; and when Goya’s body was exhumed his head was missing. The Georgian portraitist Johan Zoffany, 1733-1810, seems an unlikely member of this dark fraternity. Yet he lived not just to see two erroneous announcements of his own death but on his way back to England from India he was reported to have been shipwrecked and forced to draw lots to decide which of the survivors would be killed and eaten. Zoffany was lucky: it was a young crew member who drew the short straw. This gave the painter the unique distinction of being both a Royal Academician and a cannibal.

The story has only been disproved relatively recently but that it was believed at all says something about the way in which this German-born painter to George III was regarded, for all his court connections, as never quite fitting in. The golden age of British art was his age too but while Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner et al have long occupied centre stage, the hybrid Zoffany has been relegated to the margins. His role in perfecting the particularly British genre of the conversation piece is acknowledged, and social and costume historians mine him for the detail contained in his high-finish pictures, but his variety and accomplishment remain underappreciated.

The Royal Academy’s new exhibition of more than 60 of his paintings will show whether he deserves to be overlooked and it will also throw light on this most engaging man. Just as his art is full of incident and colour, so his character and life were far richer than those of many of his peers.

He was born Johannes Zauffaly in 1733 near Frankfurt. In his teens he walked to Rome to further his knowledge of art and trained with the Neoclassicist Anton Raphael Mengs who transmitted some of his pictorial clarity though mercifully not his idealising pallor. Zoffany came to England in 1760 after a stint working for the Prince-Archbishop and Elector of Trier. The painter may have been lanky, pockmarked and with a squint but he was also extremely sociable and charming. He was very fond of pretty girls too and London, he decided, held more prospects for a man of his stamp than a minor German court. 

Once in England he was taken up by a remarkable span of British society. He painted musicians and actors (David Garrick many times, both on stage and playing the gentleman in real life); old money and new; George III and Queen Charlotte (the German connection helped); the massed ranks of the Royal Academicians; and well-to-do family groups. He painted allegories too and some remarkable contemporary history pictures, including a pair of grisly scenes of the French Revolution and Captain Cook at the moment of his death. 

His two most spectacular canvases, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-77, and Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, 1784-86, show his remarkable gifts for multi-figure compositions. The former depicts a cluster of notable milordi scrutinising the treasures of the Uffizi Gallery, the latter — painted in India where he went in search of money and a change — a rowdy crowd of Englishmen and Indians at a cock fight. 

Both show enormous skill in organising complicated canvases and huge technical facility. Each is spattered with comic asides: a libidinous Indian grabbing his young male lover, a doughy nabob who could be the model for Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair, a red-faced grandee sneaking a quick but appreciative look at Titian’s naked Venus of Urbino, incidents that give life as well as psychological truth to the pictures. What Zoffany didn’t try to master was either Reynolds’s grand manner or Gainsborough’s feathery naturalism; unfortunately these became the modish styles and his precision soon came to seem dated. 

Ironically perhaps for an outsider, Zoffany’s closest antecedent was the quintessential painter of Englishness William Hogarth, with whom he shared a sense of humour and a fascination for the mores of society. Unlike Hogarth, however, Zoffany’s most obvious skills were for the depiction of surface appearances which is why his work, unlike that of some of his peers, does not transcend its time. Nevertheless, for a true flavour of those times, his pictures are the very first place to look.

Surface is also the primary concern in the Courtauld Gallery’s imaginative exhibition Mondrian Nicholson: In Parallel, which describes the collaborative friendship between the two modernists. When Ben Nicholson first visited the older painter in Paris in 1934 he was still turning his own art towards pure abstraction — careful compositions of squares and rectangles, sometimes in plain white and at others in colour. Mondrian confirmed his new path and Nicholson recalled that after visiting his studio he sat “at a café table on the edge of a pavement  …  for a very long time with an astonishing feeling of peace and repose”. It was the mood he wanted for his art.

The two men fed off each other: Mondrian’s experiments with grids and a palette limited to the primary colours inspired Nicholson to make complementary works of his own (without the bold lines and with more shades). In return Nicholson arranged for Mondrian’s work to be exhibited in Britain for the first time and his enthusiasm spurred his mentor on. With the rise of fascism it was also Nicholson who facilitated his friend’s move to London in 1938, into a studio next to his own in Hampstead. 

The alliance lasted ten years until Mondrian’s death in 1944 but, as this exhibition shows, it was a friendship that left its measured and geometrical imprint on the work of them both.

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