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The Conversation Piece

Cory Korkow, Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800
February 15, 2024
The Dutton Family in the Drawing Room of Sherborne Park, Gloucestershire, c. 1772. Johann Zoffany (German, 1733–1810). 2023.122

It’s tempting to imagine that former CMA director William Milliken coveted Johann Zoffany’s The Dutton Family in the Drawing Room of Sherborne Park, Gloucestershire when he surely saw it at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where it was among the works for sale in the Century of Progress exhibition. But collecting Old Master paintings was not a priority for the museum during the Great Depression, and no European paintings were acquired in 1933.

Indeed, The Dutton Family, however strikingly innovative when it was painted, might not seem the most obvious candidate for a fair celebrating technological achievements and whose motto was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts.” The Dutton Family is a masterpiece, exemplifying the quintessentially English genre of which Zoffany was the most accomplished practitioner—the conversation piece. Painted in 1772, at the height of Zoffany’s career, the family portrait was passed down through generations until it made the record price for the artist at auction in the summer of 1929. It was purchased by dealer Daniel Farr, who must have regretted the expenditure when only a few months later the stock market crashed. He was stuck with a tremendous painting whose value plummeted in the coming years as it went on a US tour that included New York, Providence, and Chicago. By the time it returned to Europe and was exhibited at the Louvre in Paris in 1938 on the eve of war, Farr had managed to sell it to renowned Anglo-Jewish collector Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted. 

Museum room with paintings on blue wall
Installation view of the Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos Gallery of British Art (203A) 

In the 1930s, the painting must have struck American audiences as quite unusual, since conversation portraits by Zoffany were only just beginning to be relinquished by their original heirs, mostly remaining with private collectors and museums in Britain and Ireland. Zoffany’s work was extraordinarily sought after during his lifetime for his ability to transcribe with documentary-like detail the furnishings, clothing, and architecture of sitters whose intrafamilial relationships were hinted at in furtive glances and subtle gestures. Around the fashionable blue-green walls of the room hang paintings whose subjects Zoffany invented. They constitute a lesson in the hierarchy of the genres, with history painting at the top, represented by the Forge of Vulcan; then painterly landscapes that recall Gainsborough, so dear to English collectors; and finally flower painting, a genre associated with female artists, depicted on a fire screen near the matriarch. By including these paintings, Zoffany, who trained as a history painter, announces his proficiency in a range of genres all in the context of his chosen specialty.

The painting remained in the Dutton family collection for more than 150 years, contributing to its extraordinary condition. Extensively published, the work has been a cornerstone of groundbreaking exhibitions, and twice it achieved the record price for the artist at auction. The painting is now on view in the Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos Gallery of British Art (203A), whose 2020 reinstallation it inspired.