The paintings of Johan Zoffany, 1733-1810, are always eye-catching. Visually stunning and full of interest, they document much of Eighteenth-century life, especially in England where the German painter became established. His specialty was the “conversation piece”, a group painting of a family or group of people, often engaged in refined occupations, and often surrounded by their possessions.
If you are lucky enough to be in New Haven, Connecticut before February 12, be sure to make a point of stopping by the Yale Center forBritish Art to see its new exhibit, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed. Afterward, the Royal Academy of Arts, London will host the exhibit from March 10 to June 10, 2012.
What I find so appealing about Zoffany is the surreal quality of his paintings. In an effort to display every valuable possession of his patron, he crowds them into the scene, regardless of their actual locations and arrangements in the house.
The painting above of Charles Townley in his Sculpture Gallery is a famous example. We get the point that Townley was a major collector of Classical sculpture, while in the painting Townley and his friends (the conversation group) seem to be serenely unaware of the encroaching statues. (Note, the spellings Townley and Towneley seem to be freely interchangeable.)
The unreal effect derives partly from the crowding, and partly from the odd juxtaposition of objects—all of the objects are real, but we don’t expect to see them together like that. Here is a watercolor of the Townley collection that shows a more realistic disposition of the objects in his London House:
The Townley Collection later became the foundation of the British Museum’s classical department, where it remains. Here are a few of the Museum’s Townley treasures that can be spotted in the Zoffany painting:
A similar effect of an odd perspective to display a multiplicity of objects was achieved in Egyptian art when showing tables piled high with offerings for the gods or pharaohs. This is also just a convention; it is the Egyptian artists’ two-dimensional way of rendering the items spread out over the table top. Sometimes the offerings are surreally floating in space, so that each separate item is featured clearly.
The Townley gallery was relatively empty compared to Zoffany’s depiction of the treasures of the Uffizi, which simply leaves the viewer stunned:
While the actual Uffizi and the Townley house were not quite so stuffed, a Zoffany-like effect of massed objects was achieved for real in the well-known Sir John Soane house in London, now a museum:
Zoffany’s depiction of Sir Lawrence Dundas and his Grandson presents a somewhat different style:
This handsome room is not crowded and distorted. The painting draws us in because of the interesting “pictures within the picture’, and the nice contrast of the bright blue walls with the gold-framed paintings. The bronze statues on the mantle echo the shapes in harbor-scape above.
Looking a little deeper, we start to notice more subtle symbols. Initially, our eyes are drawn to the bright hue of the background, and to the two human figures. However, in the painting, the object closest to the viewer is the drawer handle on the dim table in the foreground, as though inviting us to open it up and discover its secret.
Furthermore, after registering the appealing affection between the child and his grandfather, we notice that Sir Lawrence does not look at his grandson, but is pointing to the empty chair pulled back from the other side of the table, and the letters and inkstand that face that chair. Was he simply interrupting his letter writing to visit with his grandson, or is there something deeper being symbolized here?
It is these intriguing details that make Zoffany’s paintings so appealing. There is so much to look at and discover. Each object is wonderful in itself, but there is a hidden meaning and lesson attached to each that we can ponder.
Is the oddness of so many Classical sculptures in an English house a criticism of unrestrained rapacity, or a tribute to Townley’s perspicuity in gathering this rare collection? What is the mystery of that empty chair? This combination of accuracy and social commentary makes each Zoffany painting a time capsule of Eighteenth century taste and life.
========================================================All Zoffany images, except for the Uffizi, courtesy Yale Center for British Art.