Monday, January 2, 2012

The Remarkable Paintings of Johan Zoffany: Interiors

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.


  1. I would love to live in Soane's house or any setting portrayed by Zoffany, amid all those classical sculptures and fragments.

  2. I do like all of these Zoffanys. I thought I had bought one by him, but it turns out it may be by Lemuel Francis Abbott:

  3. Hello Classicist, I also think it would be fun to enter one of these fantasy worlds, although I think the weight of all those objects would get to you after a while. A similar effect of impressive but overwhelming ornament is felt when entering some Buddhist/Taoist temples.

  4. I find it interesting that the room used in the Ufizzi collection looks a lot like the common room in the Gryffindor dormitories in the Harry Potter series:

    Although obviously still crammed with even more stuff...

  5. Hello Columnist, Your comment led me to read about Abbott, who was an important portraitist himself. I was particularly taken with his fine picture of William Cowper, the poet.

    I'm sure the Yale exhibit features a number of Zoffany portraits. It would be worthwhile to peruse the catalog if traveling to New Haven is not in the cards.

  6. Hello Kionon, The Gryffindor room is an interesting parallel, and certainly might have been influenced by the Zoffany Uffizi, which is located in England at Windsor. I have noticed in a few movies lavish interiors, overly populated with objects, that lend cinematic interest.

  7. These are wonderful paintings that illustrate a time and place and focus on life and its rare beauties in which one surrounded oneself with classicism. It was an existence close to godliness! Great post, and I hope to catch the show in London in the spring.

  8. Thanks for the link to the Yale exhibit. The portrait of George III looks marginally ungainly - the left arm placing his shoulder in an apparently awkward position. But I do like the works you have featured.

  9. Hello Paul, You make an excellent point--although the crowding of the objects is visually arresting, what is most important is their high quality and what that meant to the people who collected and possessed them.

  10. Hello Columnist(2:39), That is a rather strange stance on the George III--the pose almost seems too distorted to be accidental. I wonder if the catalog has any illuminating comments on it.

  11. What clutter.

    Why not rotate the display, a choice selection in its own season, to focus, appreciate, and cherish its unique sublimity.

  12. Hello atyg, These objects never existed together in the same room, Zoffany just painted them that way to impress the viewer with the collector's accomplishments.

    Even so, your comment is very appropriate; art display back then was more cluttered. Today by concentrating on fewer objects, we can appreciate them more fully.

  13. Hello Parnassus - I have always admired the Zoffany painting of the Townley gallery - it's so rich in detail. As I've read through your posting and all the comments, it's ocurred to me that of course the sitters in these paintings wanted a visual catalog of their collections. Perhaps these paintings would not be unlike today scanning a room with a video camera. But so much more elegant!

  14. I first came across Zoffany many years ago, in the 1980s, at the Great English Country Houses show at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. The painting of Sir Lawrence Dundas and his grandson was in the show, which also featured the bronze figures shown in the painting. I have been a fan of Zoffany ever since. Great post! Reggie

  15. Hello Mark, I like your comparison. It is interesting how often we define ourselves by our possessions. Even in 19th-century studio photographs, you must have noticed how often the sitters are photographed with what they come to consider their attributes--musical instruments, tools of their trade, etc.

  16. Hello Reggie, I just looked up the exhibit you referred to. Apparently it was quite a high watermark, setting new standards for installation and display. Here is a interesting critical retrospective from Apollo Magazine in 2006:

  17. Hello Parnassus, I hope you had a wonderful holiday. It is always a pleasure to drop by an see you. This post is wonderful, I wondered if all our collections were placed in the same room how crazy wonderful it would look. Have a fruitful new year. Hf,K

  18. Hello Kevin, Thanks for your good wishes; I hope you have a great 2012 also. That is an interesting thought to have all my things together--but the sad truth is that they couldn't hold a candle to Mr. Townley's, although I have considered it for all my Chinese god statues.

    Actually, A Zoffany-like effect could be achieved through Photoshop--I think you should be up to that type of special effect.

  19. The Zoffany painting of Sir Lawrence Dundas and his Grandson is wonderful. Firstly, as you noted, the floor was not so crowded and distorted that you would take your life in your hands walking into that space.

    But secondly, the gold-framed paintings on the blue walls look as if the owner really loved his pieces and treated each object with loving care. The Dundas painting talks to the viewer of refinement, not of obscene wealth.

    1. Hello Hels, Now that you mention it, that large expanse of carpet which creates the openness of the room is an important design element. I was recently reading about hidden designs in paintings, and that swirling pattern would provide the perfect place for concealment.

      Your observation about the refined mood of the Dundas painting is an important one. I think the affectionate pose with his grandson is another higher value imparted by this scene.


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