Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed

Of all the major artists working in eighteenth-century England, none explored more inventively the complexities of Georgian society and British imperial rule than Johan Zoffany (1733–1810). Born near Frankfurt, Zoffany trained as an artist in Germany and Italy. In 1760 he moved to London, where he adapted brilliantly to the indigenous art culture and patterns of patronage, creating virtuoso portraits and subject pictures that proved to be highly desirable to a wide range of patrons. Zoffany’s work provides an invaluable and distinctive appraisal of key British institutions and edifices: the art academy, the Court, the theatre, the families of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, and the burgeoning empire. Despite achieving considerable success in England, Zoffany remained in many ways an outsider, scrutinizing British society and its customs and mores. Restless and drawn to a peripatetic existence, he traveled for extended periods in his native Germany, Austria, Italy, and India. After his death there was no move to situate Zoffany as one of the key figures in the burgeoning British school of art; this exhibition aimed to correct that oversight and demonstrated his central importance to the artistic culture of eighteenth-century Britain and Europe. 

Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed featured some seventy oil paintings and a selection of drawings and prints, many of which had been rarely or never exhibited, from public and private collections around the world, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, India, and the United States. Incorporating revelatory new research, the exhibition—the first devoted to Zoffany ever to be held in the United States and the first in Britain since 1977—constituted a timely and radical reevaluation of the extraordinary life and career of this brilliant and enigmatic artist.

View works from the collection included in this exhibition here.


Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed was co-organized by the Yale Center for British Art and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and curated by Martin Postle, Assistant Director for Academic Activities at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. The organizing curator at the Yale Center for British Art was Gillian Forrester, Curator of Prints and Drawings, and, at the Royal Academy, MaryAnne Stevens, Director of Academic Affairs. The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated book edited by Martin Postle, written by an international team of distinguished scholars, and published by the Yale Center for British Art and the Royal Academy of Arts in association with Yale University Press.

Top image
Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed installation, Yale Center for British Art, photo by Richard Caspole

Extended reading

Cover, Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed

Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed

Edited by Martin Postle

Read more Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed