Johan Zoffany: Serious Painter, Secret Humorist

Johan Zoffany: Serious Painter, Secret Humorist

T he Yale Center for British Art is known for pulling together interesting exhibitions, thoroughly researched and curated. Enter Johan Zoffany (1733–1810), society and theatrical portrait painter extraordinaire, who gets the spotlight in YCBA’s current dedicated exhibit, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed.

The show runs through February 12th, so you still have time to view his works on several occasions. Why should you do this? Well, for one thing, says Gillian Forrester, YCBA’s Curator of Prints and Drawings, “Interested individuals should plan to go more than once, because the content is really rich. Many paintings hail from public and private collections the globe over and have been rarely or never exhibited before.”

Much to my delight, the personable

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Forrester introduced me to the wonder that is Zoffany. (Confession: Prior to our meeting, I was clueless about the guy. As a former art history major, this is mildly embarrassing.) But sometimes it’s the hidden gems professors skim over that are worth a second look. Which is just what Forrester thinks, telling me, “It is important to remedy this situation, because he’s a remarkable artist.”

In assembling the exhibition, Forrester and team (to whom she gives all the credit) left no stone unturned. “A very well known

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painting called ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match’ is borrowed from the Tate Gallery. But we learned of a different version in a gentleman’s club in London. To see this painting I had to wear a skirt and go in through the service entrance at 10 o’clock in the morning so as not to upset any of the members,” she laughs.

Forrester details Zoffany’s development as a neoclassical painter, arriving in England by 1760. Within a few years he was “highly favored by King George III,” by whom he was commissioned to create conversation pieces and court portraits, and his theatrical portraits were prized by David Garrick, the leading actor of the time. Both of these patrons helped Zoffany become popular in Britain during his lifetime. Reiterates Forrester, “No one is painting as well as Zoffany,” which explains why he was more sought-after than many of his peers.

But why just read about Zoffany when you can experience him firsthand? Plan your own trip to the YCBA for an immersive introduction to (or revisiting of) this cosmopolitan court painter and treasured world traveler. (Zoffany spent time in his home country of Germany, as well as England, Italy and India, and his works reflect this). Can your keen eye spot where he occasionally pieced different canvases together to complete group settings?

And be sure to pay close attention to the details hiding in plain sight, such as paintings within paintings offering their own social or political commentary about his subjects. Adds Forrester, “Zoffany was a master practitioner of inside jokes. He’s a little mischievous. That’s what we like about him.”

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Nell Alk is a culture and lifestyle writer and reporter. Her work has appeared in myriad publications, both print and online, including Paper Magazine, Manhattan Magazine, Interview Magazine and Rolling Stone, among others. Learn more about her here.

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