Zoffany’s Painting of the Royal Academicians

This painting is considered by many to be one of Zoffany’s outstanding paintings and a tour de force. Though it was completed in 1772, and the artist passed away in 1810, this fascinating group portrait was the property of the king and it was on display from time to time during the Regency. Though, on the surface, it may appear to be a group portrait of the founders of the Royal Academy, there are many inside jokes and even a few risque comments about some of the members incorporated into the painting. Though most people today are unaware of Zoffany’s mischievous presentation of his fellow Royal Academicians, there were many people living during the Regency who would have been fully cognizant of its sometimes ironic, naughty and/or chauvinist secrets. There are any number of ways in which a Regency author might incorporate these details into a romance set during our favorite decade.

The special meanings to be found in Zoffany’s painting of the early Royal Academicians . . .

Johan Zoffany was born near the city of Frankfurt, in Germany, on 13 March 1733. His father, Anton Franz Zauffaly, was the Court Architect and Cabinet-maker to the Prince of Thurn and Taxis. Johan Zoffany took up the study of art, first drawing, then both painting and sculpture. As a young man, he traveled around the Continent in pursuit of his studies, and in the autumn of 1760, he arrived in Britain. He initially worked as a decorative painter, but soon gained a number of commissions to paint the portraits of prominent citizens in London. Within a few years, his work came to the attention of King George III and Queen Charlotte, who commissioned him to paint portraits of their family. As a fellow German, Zoffany was able to converse with the queen in her native tongue, which may have further secured to him the favor of the royal family. King George III was a committed patron of the arts, and in 1768, he founded the Royal Academy of Arts. The king wanted this organization to promote the arts of Great Britain, with the dual missions of providing formal art instruction to serious artists and mounting regular exhibitions of the work of the most talented artists. King George nominated Johan Zoffany as one of the thirty-six founding members of the Royal Academy.

Within a couple of years, the Royal Academy of the Arts was flourishing and King George granted the academy quarters in Somerset House, a slightly dilapidated royal palace. At about the same time, the king commissioned Johan Zoffany memorialize the current members of the academy in a large group portrait. Initially, Zoffany did individual portrait sketches of each of the royal academicians, the standard method of preparing for a large group portrait. It is not known if he made the final decision for the type of group portrait on his own, in consultation with the king, or with his fellow academicians. Since Zoffany was already a leading proponent of the conversation piece portrait, he may well have made the decision on his own. Conversation piece portraits had become very popular in the eighteenth century and they were more than simple portraits. The intent of a conversation piece was to capture not only the images of the subjects, but to include elements of their social, personal and professional relationships as well. These visual stories were told by the sitters’ gestures and their placement within the portrait, along with the clothes they wore, and typically, some of their most meaningful possessions, which were placed near them.

Zoffany decided to set this conversation piece portrait of the academicians in an evening class in the life drawing studio of the Royal Academy in Somerset House. There are a few female art historians who consider this decision overtly sexist, since at the time, it was completely inappropriate for women artists to attend life drawing classes in which men were present, since the model was either partially or fully nude. Therefore, the two founding female academicians, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, would be excluded from the scene by default. These female art historians suggest that by simply changing the setting, such as to an academy exhibition, Zoffany would have been able to include Kauffman and Moser as part of the portrait group. However, I have a different theory. A Royal Academy exhibition would have been rather anti-climactic for Zoffany. He wanted to depict the more dramatic scene which captured the fundamental activities of the Royal Academy, including the study and discussion of, preparation for, and the creation of art. I suspect he may also have wanted to protect Kauffman and Moser from the mischievous visual comments he had planned for several of the male academicians. Therefore, he included Kauffman and Moser in his finished work as a pair of very proper bust-length portraits hung on the far wall of the life drawing studio. In addition, the ladies’ portraits were hung high on the wall, perhaps to indicate they were above the men occupying the room below. It is known that Zoffany knew both women and was quite fond of them.

It is important to understand that "life drawing," sometimes also known as figure drawing, was considered the most fundamental and important skill for any artist. Life drawing meant that the artist was drawing "from life," that is the subject was right there in front of them as they sketched. Life drawing could be done of any subject, but the pinnacle of the skill was considered to be the drawing the human form, from life. This typically meant drawing a male or female model who was fully nude, though, in some cases, the model was partially draped with a cloth, since drawing the folds of cloth was yet a further test of the artist’s skill. It is for that reason that Zoffany set his portrait of the academicians in a life drawing class. In the portrait, there are, in fact, two male models, one is fully nude and ready to pose, with George Moser, Keeper of the Academy, in the act of setting the model’s position, apparently at the direction of Edward Penny, (in the brown suit with gold buttons and full bottom wig, with his hand to his chin), who would soon become the Academy’s Professor of Painting. The other male model is seated a few feet away, in the act of dressing, or removing his clothing, either having just finished modelling, or about to get into his own pose. An hour glass is on the floor near his feet, probably for use in measuring the time he would pose. The Royal Academy usually had four models for their life drawing classes, usually soldiers or workman in good physical shape. Typically, two models would pose for two hours, then the other two models would pose for two hours. Life drawing classes with live models were considered to be the most important and advanced part of an artist’s training. In order to be considered eligible for life drawing classes, art students first had to perfect their drawing skills by drawing plaster casts of the human figure and other shapes. As a nod to this, Zoffany has included a number of plaster casts, both full sculptures and a few reliefs, in the same room. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a drawing class, the academician seated in the lower left corner is holding a palette filled with paints. This member is Zoffany himself, who painted this group portrait.

Some art historians are of the opinion that Zoffany loosely based the composition of this group portrait on the famous Rafael fresco, The School of Athens in the Vatican. Zoffany also employed a typical placement hierarchy in his portrait, with the most prominent members of the Academy placed closer to the viewer and/or standing and the lesser figures in the background. There are two figures in this portrait which are similar to figures in Rafael’s Vatican fresco. On the left side, a man (in an olive green waistcoat and breeches, with a grey coat) can be seen standing, full length, leaning slightly back with his left foot resting on a platform. In an heroic pose similar to that of one of the figures in the left foreground of The School of Athens, is Benjamin West. This pose was also similar to many of the heroic poses which were assumed by figures in several of West’s great history paintings. Zoffany probably gave West such a prominent position in the portrait because he knew that West was one of the king’s favorite artists. In the center of the painting, the landscape and satirical painter, Charles Catton, (in the pale yellow suit) is seen reclining on a platform, reminiscent of the placement and pose of Diogenes, the Cynic, in Rafael’s painting.

Zoffany set up an interesting juxtaposition in the center of the painting. Standing just to the left of center (in an immaculate black suit, white wig and holding his silver ear trumpet), is Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President of the Royal Academy. From his pose, the viewer might assume that he was discussing one of his Discourses, a series of lectures on the theories of art which he delivered to the Royal Academy over the course of his tenure as President. Reynolds was an intellectual who thought a great deal about the philosophy of art. In the portrait, it would appear that Reynolds is looking toward a heavy-set member who is seated on a nearby packing crate. This academician (in rumpled coat and waist coat, black breeches and sagging stockings, with several days growth of beard) is Francis Hayman, the Academy’s librarian. He had been a founder of the Society of Artists, which was the forerunner of the Royal Academy and he was still an important leader in the London art community. Hayman’s relaxed, seated pose is very similar to that of King George III in a portrait of the king painted by Zoffany, indicating Hayman was the true ruler of this group of artists. His scruffy, workman-like appearance was not meant as an insult, but rather, that unlike the clean, unwrinkled Reynolds, Hayman was a artist who spent more time making art than he did thinking about it.

In the very back of the painting, just to the left of the free-standing cast of a nude male figure, can be seen a man (in a brown suit) leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. This is Richard Wilson, a Welsh landscape painter who was frequently inebriated. Initially, Zoffany had painted a fictitious coat of arms on the wall near Wilson which was comprised of tankards and pipes, to allude to Wilson’s fondness for taverns. However, Zoffany painted out that coat of arms before he completed the group portrait, perhaps not wishing to so publicly embarrass a fellow member. Another interesting vignette in this large portrait is the pose of the Irish artist, Nathaniel Hone, at the far right. Standing just behind the posed male model, Hone (in a dark brown suit), has draped his left arm over the top of a blank canvas, which is partially obscured by the shadow of his body. This may have been an allusion to one of Hone’s paintings, in which a young woman traces her lover’s shadow. There is one important academician whose portrait is missing from this painting. Thomas Gainsborough was a prominent portrait painter who lived primarily in Bath. Zoffany traveled to Bath to sketch Gainsborough’s portrait, but by the time he was ready to complete the painting, Gainsborough had fallen out with several members of the Academy and did not want his portrait included.

The right side of this group portrait caused Zoffany some extra effort as he worked on it. Initially, he was only to paint the founding members of the Royal Academy, but over the two years it took him to complete the painting, other artists became members. In order to include them, he had to extend the right side of the painting several inches. One of those new members was the sculptor, Joseph Nollekens, whose head, in profile, is just visible in front of the figure of Nathaniel Hone. Another new member was Richard Cosway, the noted miniaturist. Cosway (in yellow waistcoat and green coat, leaning on a long cane) was a short, rather ugly man, yet he was very arrogant regarding his artistic talent. Several members had objected to his admission to the Academy, since he was well known as an incorrigible serial philander and adulterer. Zoffany may have intended to allude to Cosway’s carnal escapades by having Cosway place the tip of his walking stick on the lower abdomen, just above the mons veneris, of a plaster cast of a female form on the floor beneath him. Such a pose not only highlights the part of the female anatomy in which Cosway was most interested, but the fact that the cast is partially in shadow, and is only a torso, with no arms, legs, or a head, robs it of any identity, suggesting Cosway had no interest in any woman, beyond his use of her body. The fact that the female torso is on the floor is yet another allusion to how casually Cosway cast away his many lovers.

The Academicians of the Royal Academy was completed in 1772. Also known as Life Class at the Royal Academy, this massive painting was unveiled as part of the Royal Academy exhibition that year. The public had a sensational response to the work, though Zoffany may have been equally gratified by the 500 guineas which he received from King George III in payment for this grand group portrait. Once the 1772 exhibition at the Royal Academy was over, The Academicians of the Royal Academy painting, which was the property of King George III, was taken to Windsor Castle. It seems to have hung there for the remainder of the king’s life, which included the Regency period. In fact, that painting still hangs at Windsor Castle, even today.

Zoffany continued to paint for many years after he completed The Academicians of the Royal Academy. He spent some years in Britain, then returned to Europe for a few years. He eventually traveled to India, where he accepted many lucrative commissions. He returned to Britain as a very wealthy man, in 1789. He bought a large house in Chiswick, and continued painting until 1800, when he retired. By then, he may have been suffering from some form of dementia. Johan Zoffany passed away in his home, at Strand-on-the-Green, on 11 November 1810.

Though The Academicians of the Royal Academy usually hung at Windsor Castle, it may have been returned to Somerset House in London, in 1818, on exhibit as part of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy. It would then have been on display to a whole new generation. Some people who had seen it originally and/or knew what Zoffany had been trying to convey, may have shared those interesting details with those who had never seen it before. Though Zoffany died before the Regency began, Mary Moser was still alive, as were nearly half of the other artists who had been depicted in this large group portrait. Any of them, or their friends or family, might have known the secret meanings of the various vignettes which Zoffany included in this painting.

Dear Regency Authors, might you allow one or more of the characters in an upcoming romance to view The Academicians of the Royal Academy? Will they see it through a veil of ignorance regarding some of the people it represents, or will they be accompanied by someone who can apprise them of the stories, even scandals, captured in what they are seeing on the canvas? Mayhap the heroine and the hero become involved in a brisk discussion on the various aspects of the painting, but the young lady’s chaperon, a rather hen-witted and prosaic woman, is scandalized by the fact that there are nude men in the scene. Or, perhaps Regency-era students at the Royal Academy scrutinize the painting to see how the life drawing classes might have changed since the group portrait of those early academicians was committed to canvas. Are there other ways in which Zoffany’s painting might help to illustrate a Regency tale?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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