The discovery of these two exceptional pictures, unlined and in remarkably original condition, not only returns two of Zoffany’s works to his documented oeuvre, but also enhances our understanding of the artist’s early career, before he established himself as a one of the leading portraitists in Britain. After training in the Baroque tradition with Martin Speer, a former disciple of Francesco Solimena, Zoffany left his native Regensburg in 1750 and travelled twice to Rome where he entered the studio of the portrait painter Agostino Masucci and became acquainted with Anton-Raphael Mengs. Signed and dated ‘1758’ on the reverse of each canvas, using the artist’s original patronym of ‘Zauffaly’ (fig. 1), these two works were probably created just after the young painter’s return from this formative Italian sojourn. Back in Regensburg, Zoffany embarked on a career as a history painter, attracting the patronage of important dignitaries such as the Imperial Privy Councillor, Baron von Berberich. In 1759, he entered the service of Johann Philipp, Graf von Walderdorff, Elector of Trier, and provided lost decorative cycles in both fresco and canvas for his palace at Ehrenbreitstein.
Zoffany’s early German oeuvre is comprised mainly of traditional mythological and religious subjects, along with a few extant portraits. Despite their remarkable immediacy, these pictures are not in fact portraits. They belong instead to a long pictorial tradition of character studies, known as a ‘tronie’ in the Dutch Netherlands, and as ‘teste di fantasia’ or imaginary heads in Italy. Rembrandt had specialised in such character studies in the previous century, for instance his Old Woman Praying, which was in Germany by 1762 (fig. 2; Salzburg, Residenzgalerie), and this tradition was particularly lively in Venice in Zoffany’s days, notably in the work of Giambattista Tiepolo (fig. 3), Piazetta and Giuseppe Nogari. Their half-length depictions of bearded men wearing turbans find a direct echo in the present works. Zoffany had visited Venice on his way back to Rome. These fantasy heads, which were also disseminated through print, were particularly popular in Zoffany’s native Germany: Nogari counted a number of German aristocrats among his leading patrons.
These two beautiful character studies could be seen as Zoffany’s sophisticated response to this trend. However, the imagery is far more complex and arcane than the rather generic and repetitive iconography of standard character heads. Both figures appear to be in the act of speaking, the woman holding a closed book and a scroll, and the man raising his hand in an oratory gesture. This may indicated that they were intended as Old Testament prophets, or New Testament figures like Simeon and Anna, who both acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah when He was brought to the Temple (Luke 2:21-38). The Hebrew lettering on the woman’s headdress may have been added to convey an affiliation with the Old Law of Israel. The Hebrew text can in fact only be deciphered by using Biblical Aramaic: the band around the woman’s head reads ‘This World’, while the lower part of her scroll is inscribed with the word ‘Satan’. The symbols on her banderol, which remain unexplained, have led some to suggest links to witchcraft and black magic, however, a Biblical explanation of the subjects remains more probable. In the 18th century, Zoffany’s native city of Regensburg was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Holy Roman Empire.