Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Zoffany, John
ZOFFANY, ZOFFANJI, or ZAFFANII, JOHN or JOHANN (1733–1810), painter, was born at Ratisbon in 1733. His real name seems to have been Zauffely. His father, who came of a Bohemian family, was architect to the Prince of Tours and Taxis. At thirteen, after some instruction under Solimena's pupil Speer, Zoffany ran away to study painting, and succeeded in getting to Rome. Here he was befriended by one of the cardinals, to whom his father obtained him a recommendation, and by whom (says Redgrave) he was placed under the care of the convent of the Buon' Fratelli. After a twelve years' residence in Italy, during which period he visited many Italian cities, he went back to Germany, married unhappily, and in 1758 migrated to England, where at first he seems to have been reduced to great straits. He was starving in a garret in Drury Lane when, by the instrumentality of an Italian named Bellodi, he was made known to Stephen Rimbault, the clock-maker, of Great St. Andrew Street, Seven Dials, at that time noted for his twelve-tuned Dutch clocks. Rimbault gave young Zoffany immediate employment upon his clock-faces, which it was his practice to ornament with landscapes and moving figures. From Rimbault Zoffany passed into the service of Benjamin Wilson [q. v.], as drapery painter and assistant, at 40l. a year. Bryan affirms that he first attracted attention by a portrait of the Earl of Barrymore; Redgrave, that a picture of Garrick in character obtained him the notice of Lord Bute, by whom he was introduced to the royal family. A third story is that Garrick detected a second hand in Wilson's picture of himself and Miss Bellamy as Romeo and Juliet, and hunted out Wilson's anonymous assistant. However this may be, Zoffany had become a member of the Society of Artists of Great Britain by May 1762, when he exhibited ‘A Gentleman's Head’ and ‘Mr. Garrick in the character of the Farmer returned from London’ (a subject of which Hogarth also made a sketch). ‘The Farmer's Return’ was perhaps the identical work which attracted the prime minister. Zoffany followed this by many other dramatic ‘conversation pieces’ of the ‘Great Roscius,’ e.g. as Abel Drugger (with Burton and John Palmer) in the ‘Alchemist;’ as Jaffier (with Mrs. Cibber) in ‘Venice Preserved,’ a companion to the ‘Farmer's Return;’ as Macbeth (with Mrs. Pritchard); as Sir John Brute in the ‘Provoked Wife;’ as the Poet (with Thomas King) in ‘Lethe;’ and as Lord Chalkstone in the later version of the same farce. He also painted Samuel Foote (with Thomas Weston) as the President in the ‘Devil upon two Sticks,’ and as Major Sturgeon (with Hayes) in the ‘Mayor of Garratt.’ Shuter, too, came under his brush (with Beard and Dunstall) in Bickerstaffe's ‘Love in a Village,’ and Parsons in the ‘Kaiser;’ while at the Garrick Club, in addition to a head of Garrick and the above-mentioned scene from ‘Venice Preserved,’ are pictures of King as Touchstone, Weston as Billy Button, Mrs. Pritchard as Lady Macbeth, and King again (with Mrs. Baddeley) in the ‘Clandestine Marriage.’ Besides these and other pictures in character, e.g. Moody as Foigard and King once more as Puff in the ‘Critic,’ Zoffany executed two groups of the Garrick family, and two views of the villa and grounds at Hampton, which were sold in the Garrick sale of June 1823.
Little seems to have been preserved as to Zoffany's mode of life at this date. When he came to London he had joined the St. Martin's Lane Academy in Peter's Court, and was no doubt an habitué of Old Slaughter's Coffeehouse. At one time he lived at No. 9 Denmark Street, St. Giles's, and when he was painting Foote as Major Sturgeon his studio was in the Piazza auction-rooms, afterwards George Robins's, in Covent Garden. In 1769 he was nominated a member of the Royal Academy, shortly after which (1770) he exhibited (from Frith Street, Soho) a portrait group of George III, his queen, and family, which was engraved by Earlom in the same year. He was subsequently engaged to accompany Mr. (afterwards Sir Joseph) Banks in Cook's second voyage; but, like Banks, he withdrew on account of the inadequate accommodation. In after years he painted a ‘Death of Captain Cook,’ which is at Greenwich Hospital. He had thrown up many commissions to go with the expedition, and his affairs at this juncture became embarrassed. He accordingly set out once more for Italy. He left England in 1772, assisted by a present of 300l. and an introduction from the king to the grand duke of Tuscany. At Florence he painted the ‘Interior of the Florentine Gallery,’ which is now at Buckingham Palace, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779. In 1778 he went to Vienna to present to the Empress Maria Theresa a picture, which he had painted for her on commission, of the royal family of Tuscany. He was made in return a baron of the Austrian empire. On his way home from Vienna he painted the court chapel at Coblentz. Distinctions of different kinds came to him in Italy, and he was elected a member of the academies of Bologna, Tuscany, and Parma.
He had been seven years in Italy when he reached England again in 1779. For some time he worked assiduously at his profession. Then in 1783 from unrest or cupidity he suddenly determined to start for India. Here he received many lucrative commissions, one of which, a large family group executed at Calcutta in 1784, belongs to Mr. Dashwood of Bryanston Square. At Lucknow, where for some years he resided, he painted ‘Colonel Mordaunt's Cock-match’ (1786), a ‘Tiger Hunt in the East Indies’ (1788), and the ‘Embassy of Hyder Beck to Calcutta’ (1788), all of which were afterwards engraved by Earlom. He returned to England once more in 1790, a richer man, but with sadly impaired powers, though he continued to paint. During the later years of his life he had a house at Strand-on-the-Green, where he died on 11 Nov. 1810. In the neighbouring church of Old Brentford (St. George's) is an altarpiece which he gave to it, representing the ‘Last Supper,’ and which contains, in its St. Peter, a portrait of himself. The remaining apostles are said to be Brentford or Strand-on-the-Green fishermen. Zoffany is buried in Kew churchyard.
He was married twice, his first wife being the niece of a priest at Coblentz. By his second wife, Mary, who survived him, he had four daughters. It was this lady whom Nollekens, nearing eighty, wished to marry, and to whom he subsequently left 300l. in his will (Smith, Nollekens, 1828, ii. 19, 41). A large number of Zoffany's portraits of royal and noble personages were exhibited at South Kensington in May 1867, and there are examples of his work in the Diploma Gallery at Burlington House. In the College of Physicians is a picture by him of William Hunter delivering a lecture on anatomy in the life school of the Royal Academy; in the Royal Collection, in addition to the ‘Florentine Gallery’ and separate portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte, is the Royal Academy in 1778. Zoffany also left portraits of Gainsborough, Cæsar H. Hawkins, Macklin, C. J. Fox, Sir Richard Jebb, Wilkes and his daughter, and George Steevens, the Shakespeare commentator (the last afterwards engraved for Boydell's ‘Shakespeare’). At the National Portrait Gallery is his own portrait, painted by himself in 1761, together with portraits of Sir Elijah Impey and Lord Sandwich. Zoffany's skill lay chiefly in dramatic scenes and conversation pieces, which, besides being full of life and character, are cleverly varied and agreeably finished. The backgrounds were sometimes executed by other artists, e.g. by Richard Wilson; but those by Zoffany himself have great merit and ingenuity. He has been admirably engraved by V. Green, McArdell, Finlayson, Dixon, J. G. Haid, Earlom, and others.[Redgrave; Bryan; Seguier; Smith's Nollekens; Wheatley and Cunningham's London; Thorne's Environs of London; Academy and Grosvenor Gallery Catalogues.]