Wednesday, October 26, 2011

the conversation piece

The New York Times ran a photograph of a painting by Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), because the Yale Center for British Art will be exhibiting his work.  Zoffany was born in Frankfurt, studied in Rome, and moved to England, where he would stay for most of his life. He was a specialist in painting small group scenes, a tradition that began in the Netherlands and found a niche in the England of George III (Zoffany would paint Queen Charlotte and her family twice, in fact).  These paintings, showing people in their homes, with their possessions, playing instruments, at meals, or outdoors on their estates all came to be known as "conversation pieces." Queen Elizabeth II has a large collection of Zoffany works and exhibited them in 2008-10, along with similar works by other artists, such as Sir Edwin Landseer's portrait of the young Queen Victoria and Albert, "Windsor Castle in Modern Times." Zoffany left England, lived in India for six years and returned home in 1779 to a world that no longer valued the conversation piece. But I am getting ahead of myself ....

I was originally drawn to the "conversation piece" painting because I thought it might be another instance of my Queen's Skirt idea (see two days ago and July 13). There is, in Zoffany's work,  a clear fascination with the silks at the window and the laces round the necks and the sheen on the cello, all to the exclusion of any kind of attention to the actual faces. Look at "The Gore Family" (1775-6), set one woman's face against another and try to find any difference between them.  I will concede that the two men's faces are distinct from one another, but still. So, a bit of Queen's Skirt, and yet, there's something else going on here. Look again:

This isn't merely a show of possessions. Yes, the wood of the instruments and the chairs is polished and carefully turned and yes, the skirts have all the requisite ruffles.  But look at the two things Zoffany has really painted with care: look first at the "window." Is it a window? Suddenly, we are outdoors! And we have a draped fabric, not a curtain, not a furnishing at all, but a transparent orange cloud, leading to a dramatic Tuscan hill (this was painted near Volterra) ... how beautiful that is! (Christo, are you there?). Then, second, look at the light in the painting behind the group. The art is (just ever so lightly) trumping the group sitting before it. (Ars longa, vita brevis?).  It could be a comment that this family values the work and wanted it as a focus, more than they wanted a recitation in paint of all their worldly goods. Or it could be the artist's trademark. See the next painting, the one that really caught my eye in miniature in the Times. It is "The Blair Family," from 1786-87:

The Queen's Skirt is alive here, too: look at the fabulous blue of Madame's robe. And yet, again, we have two anomalies. Here, again, we have the majesty of the paintings. The largest work is cut off at the top, and yet, the colors there and in the small side pieces dominate, picking up the color in the dress and then the center painting adds a shimmering pink -- just in case there was any doubt about where we should look. When I looked up Zoffany, I found that he was also known for painting people who did not live in stately houses; in the tradition of Velazquez, and Caravaggio, Zoffany painted ... faces. People. Look at the little girl holding the cat.

She is in there, gazing out at us, waiting for Courbet, Manet and other painters who would be able to gaze even more fully back at her.  So, look at these groupings, again, and try not to talk about these paintings with someone ... better yet, go to the Yale Center and see them for me.

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