Obscure 18th-century artist shines at YCBA

A new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art will showcase the art of a man whose work has not been exhibited globally in 35 years.
A new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art will showcase the art of a man whose work has not been exhibited globally in 35 years. Photo by YCBA.

The latest exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art brings a forgotten 18th-century artist out of obscurity.

With “Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed,” the British Art Center is the first museum to focus on the works of painter Johann Zoffany in the United States. Curator Gillian Forrester said the show — which features 65 oil paintings along with a selection of prints and drawings — seeks to establish Zoffany as a significant artist in the British canon.

Born in Germany, Zoffany lived and painted in England for most of his adult life, and he considered himself a British artist. But Zoffany’s multicultural background and extensive travels abroad meant that he has never been historically identified with either German or British art, preventing him from receiving the recognition he deserves, Forrester said.

“After his death, [Zoffany] was not typically associated with the burgeoning British School,” Forrester said. “We have been thinking a great deal about the reasons for this in the course of preparing for the exhibition and wonder if his foreign status may have worked against him.”

Martin Postle, assistant director for academic activities at the Paul Mellon Centre in London and Forrester’s co-curator for the exhibit, said that while Zoffany self-identifiedas a British artist and was appointed to the Royal Academy of Arts, he was still considered an outsider in England. At the same time, Postle said, Germans viewed Zoffany as a British artist. This resulted in his artistic obscurity because people simply did not know where to place him, Postle added.

“This [exhibition] is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Postle said. “It’s been 35 years since the last Zoffany show in the world. It’s been a long time coming.”

The exhibition’s paintings, prints and drawings were selected from private and public collections all over the world, including the Royal Collection in London, the Getty Museum, and the British Art Center’s own collection. Forrester said she arranged the show to follow Zoffany’s career through eight phases of his work life, beginning with his early Italian-Renaissance-inspired paintings and culminating in his works on the aftermath of the French Revolution.

The exhibition highlights Zoffany’s diverse range as an artist, Postle said. While some works such as “Susanna and the Elders” interpret classical themes, other paintings depict theater scenes and life in the British Royal Court. Also on view are paintings of Indian rulers, which Zoffany completed in the six years he spent in the country.

Postle said Zoffany’s biggest contribution to British art was his revival of “conversation pieces,” paintings of two or more people in casual domestic settings that had fallen out of fashion after their coming into popularity in the 1720s.

Every piece in the show, whether it is one of his numerous self-portraits or a scene of the theatre or Royal Court, shows the man behind the work — Zoffany, Postle said. Not only do Zoffany’s paintings show a strong artistic voice, Postle said, they also demonstrate great versatility.

“When you look at Zoffany’s paintings it feels like you’re looking at a half-a-dozen artists,” he said. “The important thing to understand is that he is responding to the complex commercial market at the time.”

Painter and art critic Franklin Einspruch said he appreciates the character and personality Zoffany gives to women and children in his paintings. Although it appears that Zoffany rushed through background details, Einspruch said, he took great care with people and their personal style.

The exhibition will be on view at the Yale Center for British Art through February. It then travels to the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

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