As a matter of fact, Zoffany was reasonably important though not a genius on the Reynolds and Gainsborough level. However, the idea that only geniuses deserve exhibitions is rather an odd one and I am very glad that the Royal Academy does not go along with it.
Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed, a collaboration between the Royal Academy and the Yale Center for British Art, makes a virtue of Zoffany's marginality and mobility, showcasing his panoramic gaze. He was as interested in beggars and streetsellers as nabobs and queens.
Zoffany was a man on the move: painting in Germany, Italy, back to Germany, England, back to Italy, India and back again. One of his rare disappointments was the failure to secure passage as ship's artist on James Cook's second voyage to the South Seas. Zoffany's career exemplifies the fertile possibilities of a booming European and global art market.An interesting painter, a founding member of the Royal Academy, a friend of many people in many walks of life and an artist through whose life and work we can find out a good deal about eighteenth century society and the artist's role in it.
I was particularly taken by the following:
Rome was the great artistic cosmopolis, teeming with architects studying classical ruins, artists in training from all over Europe, as well as young British milordi picking up a smattering of taste and connoisseurship before they went home to inherit. It was the capstone of a gentleman's cultural education. A man who had never visited Italy was always conscious of some inferiority, said Dr Johnson. In Rome, the young German learnt the visual lingua franca of the British.
Suitably polished, Zoffani returned to Germany in 1757 and achieved his first appointment as "court and cabinet painter" to the elector of Trier. But a hidebound and peripheral court was an anti-climax after cosmopolitan Rome. Though he married an innkeeper's daughter from Wurzburg, the ambitious artist did not cool his fiery heels for long in Germany. Three years later he moved on to London – the metropolis of commercial modernity, the biggest city of western Europe. To modern eyes, Georgian London may look small and compact, only a few square miles, which could easily be crossed on foot, but to contemporaries the English capital was a breathtaking phenomenon, a very monster of greatness. To Daniel Defoe, London was the new Rome: "Such a prodigy of buildings, that nothing in the world does, or ever did equal it, except old Rome in Trajan's time."
London represented an intense concentration of commercialised culture, retail and art, as well as rank and buying power. It was the great city of opportunity for a young man of parts.London, I have been told recently, needs such a body as the Greater London Authority (that has very few powers) in order to be a strong, important and influential city in the world. How, I asked, did it manage for the centuries before. What would Johann Zoffany have said to that peculiar notion?