On Monday, I’ll be participating in a one-day conference in London on the international contexts of John Zoffany. The conference accompanies the exhibition now on at the Royal Academy of Arts, John Zoffany, RA: Society Observed. I’m thrilled to be included and look forward to both the exhibition and what promises to be a fabulous day of talks. I’ll be speaking on “Zoffany’s Virtuosic Ambitions and the Theatre of Natural History.”
Note (added 1 June 2012) — The exhibition is stunning, and the conference was interesting for lots of reasons. In discussing some of the ways we might fit Zoffany into the world of science practitioners in the 1760s (the crucial decade in which he initially forged his career in London), I was especially glad for an opportunity to acknowledge the recent discovery of information (included in Martin Postle’s entry for the exhibition catalogue, pp. 227-28), clarifying the identify of the central figure in Zoffany’s Optician with an Attendance. While it doesn’t undo the new emphasis I try to impart to the picture with my recent article for Eighteenth-Century Fiction, it’s an important revision. As I said in my presentation:
In addition to supplying a new conception of Zoffany’s position in the history of art broadly, research for the exhibition has also cleared up any number of small questions. Such as what to call this painting from the Royal Collection. Shown by Zoffany at the Royal Academy in 1772, it was then described as An Optician with His Attendant. Since around 1800 when an inventory of Kew Palace was made, the name of John Cuff, an optical instrument maker, has been attached to the picture, though for a while it was also thought to depict a subsequent competitor in the field of lenses, a member of the Dollond family. And lately there’s been a growing trend among scholars to discount both suggestions, treating the work instead as a kind of genre picture rather than a portrait with a particular sitter. Putting it like that sounds awfully scholarly and credible. The rub, I’m afraid, is for me less so. For I was among those scholars, publishing an article just last year on the subject. While I think I managed to convince at least myself that the picture could not possibly portray Dollond, I made a great deal of the obstacles in accepting it as a picture of Cuff, too, stressing (among other concerns) that someone should have recognized and described it as such in the 1770s. While acknowledging a scenario in which new primary source material would verify Cuff as the sitter, I suggested other ways of making sense of the painting.
In fact, as detailed in Martin Postle’s entry on it for the catalogue, new source material has turned up. And so we read in The Middlesex Journal, from 1772, that “Mr. Zoffani has sold his picture of the Royal Academics to a Great Personage [King George III] for the sum of five hundred guineas; and his piece of Mr. Cuff, the Optician, at work in his shop, to Lord Grosvenor, for two hundred pounds.” While one regrets, naturally enough, being mistaken, I have to say that this news comes for me as a relief. For by the end of writing that article, I wanted this to be Cuff. For reasons I’ll explain in just a moment, there’s a small justice done in getting this identification correct. . .
Johan Zoffany, Samuel Foote as Dr. Hellebore and Thomas
Weston as Last in ‘The Devil Upon Two Sticks’, 1768
From The Paul Mellon Centre:
Johan Zoffany and His International Contexts
Burlington House, London, 14 May 2012
The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, will be co-hosting a conference on Monday, May 14, 2012, to accompany a major exhibition on the eighteenth-century Anglo-German artist Johan Zoffany (1733–1810). The exhibition, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed, is curated by Martin Postle (Paul Mellon Centre), with Gillian Forrester (Yale Center for British Art) and MaryAnne Stevens (Royal Academy); it was on view at the Yale Center for British Art from October 27, 2011, to February 12, 2012, and can be seen at the Royal Academy from March 10 to June 10, 2012. The conference aims to address Zoffany’s art in the context of four locations that were central to his practice: Germany, England, Italy, and India.
Born in Frankfurt in 1733, Johan Zoffany trained as an artist in Germany and Italy. In 1760 he moved to London, where he adapted brilliantly to the indigenous art culture and patterns of patronage, creating virtuoso portraits and subject pictures that proved to be highly desirable to a wide range of patrons. Of all the major artists working in eighteenth-century England, none explored more inventively the complexities of Georgian society and British imperial rule than Zoffany. Yet, despite achieving considerable success there, he remained in many ways an outsider, looking dispassionately at British society. Resisting complete integration into his adopted country, Zoffany traveled for extended periods in Europe and spent six years in northern India. His body of work offers unique perspectives on key British and European institutions, including the art academy, the royal court, the theatre, and the families of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. In India, Zoffany constructed new idioms for portraying the emerging colonial society in both public and private spheres, as well providing a nuanced account of the complex network of power relations, race, and culture at a critical moment in British imperial history.
Tickets for the conference and a conference program (pdf, 109 kb) are now available (also see below). To purchase tickets, and for further details about how to register, please visit the Paul Mellon Centre, London.
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