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1772 Zoffany's Academicians in the Great Room

Among the many artworks that greeted visitors to the fourth annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts was a picture of the Academy itself. Begun in 1770 and completed two years later, Johan Zoffany’s Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy is one of the earliest and most lasting images of the institution it depicts (Fig. 1). By all accounts, the painting was a resounding success. At the time of its exhibition, it reportedly “drew the densest crowd about it”, rivalling the celebrity of Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe the year before.1 By May, The Middlesex Journal announced that the painting had sold to “a Great Personage”—none other than King George III—for the extraordinary sum of five hundred guineas.2 The following summer, Robert Sayer published a large and costly mezzotint after it, engraved by Richard Earlom.3

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In recent years, Zoffany’s Academicians has been subjected to substantial and valuable scrutiny. Its many sitters have been identified and narrative layers unearthed (Fig. 2).4 To date, however, little effort has been made to consider the painting in its original exhibition context. How might we account for the attention it attracted? What kind of image of the Academy did it project into the exhibition space? And what additional or alternative meanings might its display there have allowed to emerge?

As its title makes clear, Zoffany’s canvas is, most explicitly, a group portrait. Arrayed in an undulating crescent across the centre of the canvas are the likenesses of all but three of the Academy’s thirty-eight living members, along with one honorary addition, the Chinese sculptor Tan-Che-Qua, who was then sojourning in Britain.5 For many exhibition-goers, the appeal of Zoffany’s composition no doubt lay in the guessing game of who’s who that it invited. It is tempting to imagine that at least certain sitters—for example, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Academy’s President, distinguished by his silver ear trumpet and sword (a sign of his recently awarded knighthood); or perhaps Zoffany himself, who gazes directly out from the left foreground, palette in hand—would have been recognisable to most.6

But another, equally powerful source of attraction may well have been the behind-the-scenes glimpse the painting offered—or seemed to offer—of art in the making. As with so many of his conversation pieces, Zoffany infuses this one with energy and meaning by depicting his subjects engaged in a single unifying activity, in this case, the setting of a model for one of the Academy’s evening life classes.7 Tall and lean, his torso illuminated by the grazing light of the large oil lamp overhead, this man sits naked amidst his lavishly clothed company as two of the Academy’s appointed teachers—George Moser and Francesco Zuccarelli—arrange his pose. In the right foreground another model is dressing, his session having just ended.

Despite its fine-tuned realism, the painting’s narrative is a fiction. As scholars have pointed out, in practice, only a single Academician would have been responsible for assigning a given model’s pose, and he would have done so in a room filled by the Academy’s students, not by his fellow members.8 But Zoffany’s scene is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, the models’ presence gestures to the Academy’s primary ambition, which was to import Continental systems of art education into Britain with the aim of fostering a native school of art—and, most importantly, of history painting—to rival those of Italy and France. As a key step in learning to master the human form, the life class was central to that process.

Zoffany’s Academicians is best understood, therefore, not only as a group portrait but also as a mission statement of sorts, one that announces the Academy’s allegiance to what was then considered the most technically and intellectually demanding of art forms. In certain respects, the painting’s original exhibition context must have helped to reinforce this message. Just one year earlier, the Academy had adopted a policy of accepting for exhibition “no Needle-Work, artificial Flowers, cut Paper, Shell-work, or any such Baubles.”9 The measure served to distinguish the new institution from its main competitor, the Society of Artists of Great Britain, which imposed no such restrictions, and it ensured that Zoffany’s Academicians would have been surrounded exclusively by other works of fine art, many of them by the very artists whom his portrait depicts.

Yet in other respects, the surrounding displays may have worked to undermine, or at least to call into question, the coherence of the painting’s internal narrative. In 1772, as in all preceding years, the number of history paintings on view paled in comparison to the quantity of works in less prestigious but more marketable genres. To name only a few of the most prominent examples, of the six pictures Reynolds exhibited this year, five were portraits; his chief rival, Thomas Gainsborough, contributed four portraits and ten landscape drawings; and Joseph Wilton, Sculptor to the King, showed a “bust of a nobleman; in marble”.10 Meanwhile, Benjamin West, by far the most celebrated history painter of his day, continued to radically redefine the genre by depicting subjects drawn from recent events rather than the classical or biblical past. This year, he followed his enormously popular Death of Wolfe with a second work of “modern” history, William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians.11

Already by the time Zoffany had completed his group portrait of the Academy’s members, the gap between the institution’s lofty aspirations and the exigencies of the London art world had begun to materialise with startling clarity. Indeed, we might even say that the portrait itself—whether intentionally or not—highlights this disconnect. For an image that proclaims the Academy’s commitment to what Reynolds called the “grand style”, the way it renders that art’s making is decidedly, almost comically, mundane. In his fourth “Discourse”, a lecture delivered just months before the exhibition of 1772 opened, Reynolds encouraged the Academy’s students to “raise and improve” the works they produced in the lower genres, like portraiture, by “[leaving] out all the minute … particularities” and instead distilling their subjects to a single “general idea”.12 Here, by contrast, Zoffany adopts exactly the “minute” approach that Reynolds disparages. We see every detail, even the most trivial—from the creases in Francis Hayman’s rumpled stockings, to the tears and stains on the oilcloth rug, to the white chalk outlines at the posing model’s feet. And the models themselves, with their wiry frames and everyday clothes discarded on the floor, belong every bit as much to the world outside the picture frame as the handsomely dressed men who employ them.

At the same time that Zoffany’s Academicians affirms history painting’s position at the apex of the academic hierarchy, it also demystifies the genre it celebrates. By calling attention to the bodies and transactions that stand behind such works, the painting seems to suggest that these subjects are just as compelling, if not more so, as the works they help to produce. Given the crowds the painting attracted, it seems entirely likely that its audience agreed.

  1. Charles Robert Leslie and Tom Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds: With Notices of Some of his Contemporaries, 2 vols. (London: J. Murray, 1865), vol. 1, 446.↩︎

  2. The Middlesex Journal: or, Chronicle of Liberty, 30 April–2 May 1772. A report published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in the winter of 1771, which indicates that Zoffany was then in the process of executing “a capital picture of the members of that noble institution [the Royal Academy] … for a Great Personage,” suggests that the painting was, in fact, a commission by the King. See The Gentleman’s Magazine 41 (February 1771), 93.↩︎

  3. Earlom’s mezzotint was among the most expensive prints in Sayer’s stock for a decade or more, selling for £1l, 11s. 6d. in 1774, and £2l, 2s in 1786. Sayer priced the vast majority of his other items at 10s. 6d. or less. See Robert Sayer’s new and enlarged catalogue for the year MDCCLXXIV of new, scarce and valuable prints, in sets and single, books of architecture (London, 1774), 2; and Robert Sayer’s catalogue of new and interesting prints, consisting of engravings and metzotintos of every size and price (London, 1786), 3. A full century later, Zoffany’s composition remained a sufficiently well-known work to feature in the British weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic, on the hundredth anniversary of its public debut. See The Graphic, 25 May 1872.↩︎

  4. See Mary Webster, Johan Zoffany, 1733–1810 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 252–261; and Martin Postle (ed.), Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2011), 219–220.↩︎

  5. The three absent members are Thomas Gainsborough, and the brothers George and Nathaniel Dance.↩︎

  6. Tellingly, when Sayer published Earlom’s mezzotint, he produced an etched key with the names of all thirty-six sitters to go along with it.↩︎

  7. As it was deemed improper for women to attend the Academy’s life classes, Zoffany depicts the institution’s two female members, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, as painted portraits on the wall at right. On this significant exclusion, see Angela Rosenthal, Angelica Kauffman: Art and Sensibility (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 49–52.↩︎

  8. See Webster, Johan Zoffany, 259; and Postle (ed.), Johan Zoffany RA, 219–220.↩︎

  9. Royal Academy Council Minutes, 9 and 13 April 1770. The Academy formally announced the new policy the following spring. See Public Advertiser, 5 April 1771. In fact, the Society of Artists showed an unusually high number of such craftworks at their exhibition this year, making the contrast all the more salient. See Matthew Hargraves, Candidates for Fame: The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 128; and Leslie and Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, vol. 1, 441–442.↩︎

  10. Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904, 8 vols (London: H. Graves and Co., 1905–1906), vol. 3, 191, vol. 6, 271, vol. 8, 316.↩︎

  11. Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts, vol. 8, 212–213. Alongside Penn’s Treaty, West exhibited several more conventional history paintings that year: Simeon, with the Child Jesus in his Arms; the paired works, Juno Receiving the Cestus from Venus and The Death of Hyacinthus; and Una, from Spencer’s Fairy Queen.↩︎

  12. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, Robert R. Wark (ed.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 72.↩︎

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