Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Gentleman, thought to be Samuel Blunt (1723–d.1796 or 1800) 

Johan Zoffany RA (c.1733-1810)

Portrait of a Gentleman, thought to be Samuel Blunt (1723–d.1796 or 1800), Johan Zoffany RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
35 ¾ x 30 ¾ in (91 x 78 cm)
European Private Collection
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Zoffany is so well known for his conversation pieces, such as the celebrated Tribuna [Royal Collection] that his larger portraits, and thus his intuitive grasp of personality and psychology, are frequently overlooked. These life-scale portraits are relatively rare, and this example is a fine addition to his oeuvre.

Zoffany has yet to be the subject of a major monograph, a task perhaps avoided by art historians due to the lack of any archive, notebooks or memoranda (only one autograph letter remains). As a result, many of his works have been attributed to artists who seem more plausible candidates for the skill of the work on offer. This portrait for example, had formerly been attributed to the Italian artist, Pompeo Batoni, thanks to the picture’s Italianate colouring. But despite the bold colours, which are a trait of Zoffany’s larger portraits, one can detect a demonstrably English approach in this work, both in pose and technique.

The present example is a fine illustration of Zoffany’s interest in his sitter’s humanity, rather than the dignity of their office or the requirements of public decorum. The artist’s skill for the portrayal of detail and the exact replication of nature, as seen in his conversation pieces, encouraged him to focus on the subtler aspects of portraiture. As a result, his portraits relay a distinct affinity with his sitter’s character, and convey a surprising level of gaiety and emotion. This example is a direct, unpretentious study, with a relatively simple composition, in which the only subject is the sitter’s personality.

The sitter’s sideways glance, and the hint of a suppressed laugh, is most unusual for portraits of the period. We rarely see the same vitality in works by Zoffany’s English contemporaries, and certainly not in the works of continental artist’s such as Batoni. Here, the sharp and precise rendering of the sitter’s features is an illustration of Zoffany’s ability to penetrate character beyond a simple likeness – the standard by which all great portraitists are judged – and affords the viewer a comprehensive impression of a person about whom, through lack of biographical detail, we know little.

Samuel Blunt lived at Springfield Place, and inherited from his first wife, Sarah Gale (d.1758), the Gale estates, including Crabbet Park near Crawley. He was a local magistrate. In 1759 he married as his second wife Winifred Scawen (b.1742), the daughter of Robert Scawen (c.1709-1778) of Reigate, Surrey.

A label, verso, reads;
“He married in 1756. as his second wife, Winifred, daughter and heiress of Robert Scawen of Reygate, Surrey, an ancient Cornish family now extinct in the male line in all branches. They had three sons: Robert, a Captain in the Royal Horse Guards, who died unmarried in 1786.”
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