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From the Royal Academy to The Queen

Johan Joseph Zoffany (Frankfurt 1733-London 1810)

The Academicians of the Royal Academy 1771-72

Oil on canvas | 101.1 x 147.5 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 400747

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Founded by George III on 10 December 1768, the Royal Academy of Arts was the first training school for artists in England to receive royal endorsement and as such marked a distinctive shift away from the various informal drawing schools that had preceded it. The original ‘Instrument of Foundation’, signed by the king, named 34 founder members (including Sir Joshua Reynolds, its first President), with a maximum total membership of 40. Johan Zoffany, one of a small number of artists personally nominated by the king, was added to the official list a year later.

This painting depicts all but three (Thomas Gainsborough, George Dance and Nathaniel Dance) of the foremost Academicians, as well as the Cantonese sculptor Tan-Che-Qua (who happened to be in London at that time) and the Academy’s first Professor of Anatomy, William Hunter. Produced as a speculative work, the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1772, where it was purchased by George III directly from the artist. The setting, previously thought to be the life-drawing room at Old Somerset House, is more likely to be a fictional space invented by the artist to suggest both a life class and a plaster room.

Zoffany emphasizes the importance of life drawing to the Academy by choosing it as his subject here. Two male models can be seen on the right: the older of the two is seated on a dais, his right hand being guided in in to a rope sling by the Academician George Michael Moser. A single oil lamp, designed to accentuate the shadows of life models, illuminates the room. The two portraits hanging on the wall are of Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, the only female founding Academicians. Although there is no evidence that women were expressly forbidden from attending life-drawing classes, their physical absence from this painting suggest that it would have been deemed improper.

Other notable figures include Sir Joshua Reynolds, dressed in black with his silver ear trumpet,and Benjamin West, another favourite of the king given prominence on the far left, gracefully leaning on the drawing desk. In the bottom left-hand corner Zoffany includes a self-portrait, clearly identifying himself as the originator of the work as he looks out of the canvas.

The artists are clearly setting up the life-class, and perhaps discussing its importance, rather than actually drawing from the nude. Zoffany uses the scene to convey the importance of the intellect in art and to suggest by a series of visual clues what these artists might find to talk about. They might discuss the importance of the antique and its survival in the sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, pointing to the objects displayed around the walls; or the need to find that beauty for oneself in nature, pointing to the boy unconsciously adopting the pose of the ‘Spinario’, a famous antique statue, as he undresses.

The group is conceived as a pastiche of the most famous intellectual conversation in art, Raphael’s School of Athens, with Reynolds and William Hunter playing the parts of Plato and Aristotle. The reference is not quite an outright parody; nor is it a solemn tribute. Zoffany’s painting is more a good-humoured mock-heroic version of the School of Athens.

Text adapted from Portrait of the Artist, London 2016 and The Conversation Piece: Scenes of fashionable life, London, 2009