'Zoffany' - press reaction

March 7 2012

Image of 'Zoffany' - press reaction

Picture: Royal Collection

So far, the critics seem to like the Zoffany show at the RA. Here's Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph giving it 4/5, and here is Amanda Vickery in The Guardian. However, Philip Hensher has an engaging piece on the artist in The Telegraph, and makes this bold claim:

He must be the greatest painter of English royalty between Van Dyck and Winterhalter. In his royal paintings, such as the wonderful Queen Charlotte With Her Two Eldest Sons, royalty appears with the necessary spectacle, and even with a whimsical appearance, but also off-duty, relaxed. Other painters of the period, like Gainsborough, rendered royalty as private individuals; Zoffany’s royals have a curious quality, suggesting that they have wandered off from stiffer, stately duties and have flung themselves down without changing their clothes to be alone with each other and the painter. They have, unexpectedly, a connection with Zoffany’s large and innovative series of portraits of actors in their best and most memorable roles.

Meanwhile, over at The Guardian, Jonathan Jones gets into a terrible muddle sneering at Zoffany's Tribuna:

Zoffany's eye for the manners of the English was ironic and true. His strange and wonderful Tribuna portrays the reality of the Grand Tour – a social, not a cultural pilgrimage. It also reveals a trait in British society that remains constant to this day: the studied shallowness of the elite. In Zoffany's grand anthropology of the English ruling class, great art is just a prop for fashion and the rituals of the privileged.

A few quick points (someone has to defend the English elites):

  • First, despite those prostitute-frequenting posh Grand Tourists that historians like to highlight, it is undeniably the case that the lure of Italy was primarily cultural. If it wasn't, most Tourists would have stopped in Paris, and England's country houses wouldn't be full of antiquities, and so heavily inspired by classicism.
  • Second, our best source of information about the painting comes from the correspondence of two high members of the elite whom Jones derides as 'shallow'; they are Sir Horace Mann (who is in the painting, and was an art dealer on the side), and Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, and one of England's greatest art historians.
  • Third, if the art in the Tribuna was just a prop for the privileged, why did Zoffany take such care to portray the figures as admirers of art, rather than each other? All the conversations in the picture are clearly being held around the objects themselves. Indeed the groupings are really no different to Teniers' depictions of the Habsburg elites admiring Archduke Leopold's art collection.
  • Finally, the Tribuna was commissioned by the elite of all English elites, King George III and Queen Charlotte. And they were browned off that Zoffany had put any people in it. In other words, all they wanted to do was look at the art. They couldn't give two hoots about the social rituals or the fashion.  

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