Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed

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Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed
The Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Photo The Royal Colleciton copyright 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Johan Zoffany, The Tribuna of the Uffizi, 1772-7

Johan Zoffany, Frankfurt-born painter of eighteenth-century London society, may not be as well known as his contemporaries, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, but he's hardly a complete stranger to us. Anyone who saw Dulwich Picture Gallery's 2003 exhibition 'Shakespeare in Art' will have his on-stage depictions of the actor David Garrick – hilariously wooden to today's eyes – seared on their memory. In 2009, the Queen's extensive Zoffany holdings formed part of the Royal Collection's exhibition, 'The Conversation Piece'. That show's highlight, Zoffany's 'The Tribuna of the Uffizi' (1772-77) – a marvellous painting famous for gently satirising the society it appears to celebrate – is unsurpassed in this one.

All that's great about Zoffany can be contemplated in this single image, the result of a commission from Queen Charlotte to paint highlights of the Grand Duke of Tuscany's art collection. Those Tuscan jewels are there in abundance, but Zoffany also crowds the scene with real people – himself included – some engaged in cultured, Grand Tour exchanges, others, like the group goggling the rear-end of the 'Medici Venus', transparently not. To royal eyes, the contemplation of such a rabble was deemed infra dig – it was to be Zoffany's last royal painting.

The show fleshes out the notion of the artist as market-savvy social climber but also reveals him to be less flashy, less of a flatterer than his reputation suggests. The RA attempts too much given the limited accommodation of its Sackler Wing, packing in 60-odd paintings that take us from early, mythological subject matter to London and Zoffany's contribution as a founding member of the Royal Academy, to India – where Zoffany went 'to roll in gold dust' – to the appalled visions of revolutionary France he completed on his return.

Yet Zoffany remains hard to fathom, no more so than in a double-sided painting from 1779. On one side he paints a virtuous 'Repose on the Flight into Egypt'. On the other he presents us with 'Self-Portrait with Friar's Habit' (1779) in which the artist is seen to be putting on (or taking off) a monk's robes. Dangling from a hook behind him is a pair of condoms. It's a joke, perhaps, about outward appearance versus private behaviour. The performance of life – gently mocked by Zoffany's feather-light touch.

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