The Last Supper painted by German neoclassical painter Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) remains one of the most famous colonial era paintings in Kolkata (then Calcutta, the colonial capital). Painted in February-March 1787, Zoffany officially presented The Last Supper to the authorities of St. John’s Church as an altarpiece on April 9. When St. John’s Church was officially consecrated as the Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta on June 24 the same year, the painting was inaugurated placed above the main altar of the church. The painting is still on display at St. John’s Church, albeit at a different location.
Zoffany was born in 1735 (1733, acc. the popular version) as Johannes Josephus Zaufallij in a Bohemian Jewish family. His father was an expert cabinet maker who had migrated to Frankfurt from Prague, and earned a name as a cabinet maker and an architect. Zoffany, like many other contemporary masters of neoclassical art, showed an early interest and talent in portraiture. After dropping out from school, Zoffany’s father apprenticed him to the studio of a skilled local painter Michael Speer, from whom he received training in painting draperies and decorations on wooden furniture. Unsatisfied with the narrow scope and applicability of Speer’s training, and unable to obtain permission from his father to train elsewhere, Zoffany stole some of his father’s savings and ran away from home for Vienna and then moved on to Rome on foot. He spent twelve years in Italy producing and selling copies of masterpieces.
In mid-1750s Zoffany returned to Germany and married a teenaged daughter of a Parish priest, but was unsuccessful in earning a substantial living working as a professional miniature portrait painter. Zoffany arrived in England in search of a better fortune in 1761-62, and soon divorced his wife as her small fortune was exhausted. The next few years was difficult for Zoffany, as he tried to find permanent commission, and became bankrupt in the process. However, his fortune turned when he got a permanent employment with Stephen Rimbault, a famous clockmaker, to paint the fronts of the musical clocks. As an extension of this employment, he soon started to work for the famous 18th century English painter and scientist Benjamin Wilson to paint draperies. Both of these employments exponentially increased the visibility of Zoffany’s work and he soon started to acquire fame. Zoffany’s work would soon catch the eye of English Emperor George III, who would nominate him as one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in London.
Zoffany in India
By the early 1780s, Zoffany had again fallen on bad days. He had squandered his fortune in extravagant living. Also, he fell from favour from the English court for his brilliant but controversial portrayal of the Grand Tour-craze in his The Tribuna of the Uffizi. Zoffany, therefore, decided to try his luck in India to revive his fortune. Like most people in England of his time, Zoffany had heard tales of the riches to be had in India. Accordingly, in November 1782, he petitioned the East India Company’s (EIC) Court of Directors for permission to go to India as a portrait painter. The petition was approved and securities cleared in January 1783, and the Court of Directors permitted Zoffany to leave for India on the condition that he would not sail on an EIC ship. Despite the prohibition, Zoffany sailed on Lord Macartney, a EIC ship disguised as a midshipman. He seemed to have earned a reputation as a portrait painter during the 6-month long voyage, which resulted in a recommendation to Warren Hastings, then Governor General on arrival in Calcutta on 15 September 1783.
Warren Hastings recommended Zoffany to the court of Asaf ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh and his Prime Minister Hasan Reza Khan. Zoffany always wanted to get the patronage of the Lucknow court. He had heard rumours about riches on offer at the court, and expected to “roll in gold dust”. Both Asaf ud-Daula and Hasan Raza Khan were soon impressed by Zoffany’s portraits and he got the patronage that he had hoped for. In the next 2-3 years he was in Awadh, Zoffany painted some of his Indian masterpieces, including his most celebrated work Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match. Between 1784, and Warren Hasting’s departure from India in 1785, Zoffany was also employed to paint some of Hasting’s family portraits. Zoffany made his way back to Calcutta in 1786, and left India in 1789. On his voyage back to England, he shipwrecked off the shore of the Andaman Islands and to avoid starvation the survivors, including Zoffany, had to eat the corpse of a fellow sailor.
Back to The Last Supper
Zoffany, now a famous painter, was commissioned to paint The Last Supper for the inauguration of the new Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta in 1787. The Calcutta Gazette of April 1787 reports:
“We hear Mr. Zoffany is employed in painting a large historical picture, ‘The Last Suppet’: he has already made considerable progress in the work, which promises to equal any production, which has yet appeared from the pencil of this able artist… “
Once inaugurated, the painting immediately generated controversy. Zoffany had used portraits of 13 important European merchants in the city for the apostles. He had also used the portrait of Father Parthenio, the Greek Orthodox Priest of Calcutta, as a model for Jesus. Many sneered at the painting for being significantly different from the original by Da Vinci. However, major controversy centered around the depiction of two specific apostles- St. John and Judas Iscariot. St. John, the feminine figure on the left of Jesus was painted after W. C. Blaquerie, Calcutta’s first Police Magistrate and an excellent Orientalist scholar. Blaquerie was said to have feminine looks and have been successful in rounding up gangs of bandits in and around Calcutta in female disguise. Blaquerie, however, was disliked by many of his contemporaries in the European society of Calcutta because of his minute interest in local “manners and customs”. John Clark Marshman (1794-1877) had famously described Blaquerie in the following words:
“A Brahminised European, notorious for his hostility to Christianity, and his indifferent character.”
The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman and Ward by John Clark Marshman
For these reasons, Blaquerie’s portrayal as St. John was not very well-received and was generally perceived to be of “bad taste”.
The second point of controversy is the portrayal of Judas. There are two theories about the identity of the person portrayed as Judas. According to the more popular version, Judas was depicted by auctioneer William Tulloh, with whom Zoffany had fallen out for some reason, and this depiction led to a lawsuit at the Supreme Court in Calcutta. According to another, lesser known version, Zoffany had used the portrait of an EIC employee named Mr. Paull who would later become the Resident of Awadh under Lord Wellesley and also a Member of Parliament after his return to England. According to this version, Zoffany had a very public spat with Mr. Paull (of questionable character) in Calcutta, which prompted him to use Paull’s portrait for Judas.
Whatever the case may be, it is true that Zoffany was no stranger to controversy of this sort. He had landed himself into trouble quite a few times for painting caricatures of people who he did not quite agree with, morally or otherwise. For example, while in Lucknow, Zoffany once reported having painted a caricature of Nawab Asaf ud-Daula. As the word about this painting got out, several courtiers jealous of Zoffany’s position in the court ceased this opportunity to defame him and had complained accordingly to the Nawab. At the end, Zoffany had to work overnight to rework the caricature into a presentable piece of painting to save his skin. The Nawab was so pleased by the reworked painting that he had given Rs. 10,000 to Zoffany as a show of appreciation. In another occasion, Zoffany painted a caricature of the contemporary British Queen Charlotte by depicting her with all her suitors in her pre-married life in Germany.
The Last Supper: many conservation attempts
The St. John’s Church authorities seemed to have immediately run into the problem in terms of maintaining the painting in its best condition. The heat and humidity of Calcutta led to the immediate deterioration of the painting as the following Church Minutes from 15 October 1787 suggests:
“The picture made by Mr. Zoffani and hanging over the Communion Table having been represented by Mr. Alefounder (a painter and friend of Mr. Zoffani) to be damp, and in some degree injured, the Churchwardens accepted the proffered services of Mr. Alefounder to have it dried, and this has been done as well as circumstances would admit.”
Calcutta Old and New by H. E. A. Cotton
This is John Alefounder (1757-1795), a portrait and miniature artist. He found that the painting was badly affected by the dampness of the walls of the new church, and in order to allow more air to keep it dry, he removed the cloth from the canvas on which the painting was mounted. This, however, did not solve the problem for a longer term. In the next 250 years, the painting was moved to different parts of the church for better protection from the elements. A report from 1888 suggests that all these measures had failed.
“At any time, it is possible to see only too well the tarnished, broken wooden frame, denuded in many places of the gilding, the scratched, dented surface, the torn, frayed canvas, and the large hole near the nose of Judas Iscariot.”
John Zoffany, RA, His Life and Works (1735-1810) by Manners & Williamson
Finally, in 2010, the painting was painstakingly restored by a joint team of German and Indian experts brought together in a collaborative project between INTACH and The Goethe Institute.
Zoffany’s The Last Supper, although not his best work, remains a testament to his genius. It is also a masterpiece that Kolkatan’s can be extremely proud of. However, as a closing note, it must be mentioned that this is not the only Last Supper painted by Johan Zoffany.
On his return to England in 1789, Zoffany was commissioned to paint another Last Supper similar to the one in Calcutta as an altarpiece for the Kew Church. However, after a dispute about remuneration, Zoffany gifted this painting to St. George’s Church in Brentford (Middlesex). In this painting, Zoffany is believed to have used the portraits of his wife (as St. John) and other close relatives as the apostles. Recently, St. George’s was renovated and is being reused as a luxury apartment. The painting is now kept at St. Paul’s Church in the same town.
Archer, M. (1979) India and British Portraiture, 1770-1825. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet
Dalrymple, W. (2004) White Mughals: love and betrayal in eighteenth-century India. New Delhi: Penguin
Manners, L.V.A.E.D., Williamson, G.C. (1920) John Zoffany, RA, His Life and Works. 1735-1810.[With Plates, Including Portraits.]. London: John Lane
I am grateful to my friend and colleague Scott Chaussée of the University College London for the information on the current location of the other The Last Supper.