The Art of Observation

Yale Center for British Art presents works by Johan Zoffany

Written by Lisa Mikulski

Johan Zoffany's John Cuff and his assistant, ca. 1772, oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, © 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.Image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

A not-to-be-missed exhibition is presently on view at the Yale Center for British Art. Such a vast and dynamic showing of the many aspects of British society is rarely seen in one artist’s work, but Johan Zoffany seems to have accomplished this effortlessly and with the skill and technical application of a master artist. The installation is elegant and beautifully executed.

Organized in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed premieres in the United States. It will be showing at the Yale Center for British Art through February 12, at which point it will have its first London showing since 1976. The works come from private and public collections from all over world including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, and India.

Perhaps you haven’t heard of Johan Zoffany. It is not surprising. But how is it that master artists such as Zoffany fail to become widely recognized in the art world? Those such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and J.M.W. Turner seemed all to have had their share of the limelight. The Yale Center for British Art successfully corrects this oversight with Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed and brings his work and persona into the books of art history where they rightfully belong.

From the Yale Center for British Art: “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. Born near Frankfurt, Zoffany moved to London in 1760. Despite achieving considerable success in England, he remained in many ways an outsider, looking dispassionately at British society.”

Perhaps this explains the oversight in embracing the artist as one of the eminent artists of the time, but also might also explain his unique ability to look objectively inside the lives of British society and record them.

That is not to say that Zoffany was unsuccessful in assimilating into the various cultures in countries in which he traveled. He spent extended periods in Italy, India, Germany, and Austria. The artist adapted well to different cultures and depicted them with the virtuosic skill. His work was well accepted and was in demand from a wide range of patrons.

There is humor in his work, which scored points with me, as I always enjoy wearing a smile in what can sometimes be a rather dry gallery experience.

In Britain, Zoffany’s works were generally thought of as portraiture.

“One of the revolutions of this exhibition is in the variety and diversity in his work … for instance his early works are not portraiture, they are mythology and religious subjects. But the variety of the work shows that the artist was always observing and that is why we titled the show Society Observed. The work he makes is very distinctive, and this exhibition shows the little known work,” explains Gillian Forrester, the Yale Center for British Art’s curator of prints and drawings.

The exhibition is presented according to themes that correspond to the artist’s interests and points in his career. Each area provides a compelling glimpse into its subject matter and the social morays thereof. I found this work to be in some ways a step above some other British artists of renown. Zoffany’s work is interesting. It is fun. It is exquisitely executed. Also of interest is that the Yale Center for British Art elected to display several unfinished works, allowing visitors to ponder why he decided to “move on” to something else.

Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observedwas curated by Martin Postle, assistant director for academic Activities at the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art. The organizing curators are Gillian Forrester at the Yale Center for British Art and MaryAnn Stevens, director of academic affairs, Royal Academy of Arts, London.

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