The Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johann Zoffany – Detail

The Academicians of the Royal Academy  by Johann Zoffany - Detail

1771-2 Painted for George III
Zoffany’s image similarly shows the ‘back-of-house’ clutter and the intellectual dignity of working artists, where fine gentlemen sit on packing cases and converse with polish and good-humour. He depicts the Academy’s life-drawing room at Old Somerset House, with casts round the walls, a simple platform for the model (with chalk to mark out the pose), a single oil lamp suspended from the ceiling and a circular table running round the room with individual candle-holders with individual shaded candleholders for each of the artists. An painting attributed to Zoffany of c. 1761 of the life-school at St Martin’s Lane (Royal Academy of Arts, London) shows the same arrangement more clearly. Zoffany depicts the circular table in a very summary and interrupted way, with only one candle-holder visible towards the left edge, presumably because it would otherwise have inhibited the picturesque grouping of this very animated conversation.

The artists are clearly setting up the life-class, and perhaps discussing its importance, rather than actually drawing from the nude. Rather as Alberti did, 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. They might discuss the relative merit of sculpture and painting, observing the fragment of marble torso and Zoffany’s prominently displayed palette balancing each other at either side of the composition. They could observe the same diagrammatic shadows seen in Alberti’s print, or the Newtonian spectra visible in the flames of the oil lamp reminding them that all colour derives from light. Even the hourglass timing the duration of each pose held by the models must remind us of the idea that life is short and art is long.

There is a considerable difference between the ideas of artistic nobility held by the Italian Renaissance and the English Enlightenment. This London academy has no place for saturnine Michelangelesque brooding: English artists are cheerful, clubbable, fraternal, polite, gentlemanly and chatty. Their have esprit in the sense of wit as well as (in some cases) genius. Zoffany’s 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. The members of the ‘School of London’ are as resistant to subordination as any Greek: Sir Joshua Reynolds, the President, recognised by his ear-trumpet, with which he is listening to the ideas of his fellows, is not the most central or prominent figure in the group, but rather a ‘first among equals’.

The only gate-crasher to this party is the Chinese artist, Tan-che-qua (fifth from the left), who happened to be in London at the time. Apart from curiosity value, his inclusion here may be a reminder of the writer of the Royal Academy’s Professor of Poetry, Oliver Goldsmith (?1730-74), who published a series of letters, with the title The Citizen of the World, supposedly written by a Chinaman visiting England. Letter no. 104 (26 January 1761), discussing learned societies, seems relevant here, especially when we remember the conscious decision of the Royal Academy to restrict membership to practising artists, excluding gentleman connoisseurs:

‘A philosophical beau is not so frequent in Europe [as in China], yet I am told that such characters are found here. I mean such as punctually support all the decorums of learning, without being really very profound or naturally possessed of a fine understanding . . . Such men are generally candidates for admittance into literary clubs, academies, and institutions, where they regularly meet to give and receive a little instruction and a great deal of praise. . .But where true knowledge is cultivated, these formalities begin to disappear; the ermin’d cowl, the solemn beard and sweeping train are laid aside; Philosophers dress, and talk, and think, like other men’

Although depicted as part of a royal commission celebrating the formation of a royal academy, this is a group of artists who dress, talk and think like other men.

Posted by >shadow_in_the_water on 2014-02-24 17:26:08