Johan or Johann Zoffany was born Johannes Zauffaley near Frankfurt am Main. His father, Antoni Frantz, who was architect to the Prince of Thurn and Taxis, was Bohemian by birth and his mother was German. At the age of sixteen he left home to travel to Rome, where he remained for seven years. He went back to Germany in 1757 and made what turned out to be an unhappy marriage. In 1760 he arrived in England. After a period of great privation, during which time his wife left him, he passed into the employment of the clockmaker, Stephen Rimbault, who set him to painting clock faces, and then with the painter Benjamin Wilson, who used him as a drapery painter. At this time Zoffany attracted the attention of David Garrick, who encouraged him to develop his latent talent for theatrical conversation pieces, a genre that had been pioneered by William Hogarth and developed by Benjamin Wilson. Garrick, with an inborn flair for publicity, sat to Zoffany in a number of the roles in which he acted, in the knowledge that mezzotint prints made from the pictures were bound to reach a wide audience and enhance his reputation.
At the same time that Garrick took an interest in Zoffany, Lord Bute introduced the artist into royal circles. Zoffany painted domestic interiors for George III and Queen Charlotte. In 1769, instead of being elected to the new Royal Academy, he had the honour of being nominated by the king. Zoffany had been destined to join Captain Cook’s second expedition (to ascertain the existence or otherwise of a ‘Southern Continent’) as an artist under the direction of Joseph Banks. Banks, however, withdrew on account of cramped accommodation, and so Zoffany’s engagement was cancelled.
In 1772, Zoffany returned to Italy with introductions to a number of leading persons and with a commission from Queen Charlotte to paint the Tribuna (with permission from the Grand Duke of Tuscany) containing leading pictures from the Grand Duke’s collection, at the Uffizi in Florence. Starting the work with great enthusiasm, Zoffany managed to spin it out over a period of five years, while accepting other commissions. He crowded his composition with figures (some of them not considered by contemporaries to be among the ‘great and the good’), thus turning the painting into a conversazione, which brought with it some criticism. Zoffany returned to England in 1779, but four years later, perhaps finding that the fashion for theatrical and other conversation pieces had passed, and to repair his finances, he left for India. His six years in India certainly made him a richer man and he came back to England once more, at the age of 56, to live in some style with his second wife at a house at Strand-on-the-Green, where he died 21 years later.