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Picture in focus: Johan Zoffany 'The Academicians of the Royal Academy'

The Picture in Focus series is an opportunity to explore paintings from the Royal Collection in greater depth. Johan Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy is presented here with a selection of life drawings from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.


The model is strongly lit from above by a gas lamp, to emphasise his muscular form. The practice of drawing on coloured paper allowed artists to work with white chalk to create highlights. Black, red and white chalks became the most favoured material for capturing the soft surface and rounded volumes of the nude figure.


The study of human anatomy was encouraged. Artists drew from plaster casts of flayed figures (écorchés), to better understand the underlying musculature and how it informs the movement of the body.


Alongside classes in drawing the live model, students drew from copies of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. These heroic nudes were considered to be the most noble and worthy models to imitate. As this boy undresses, he unconsciously adopts the pose of the ‘Spinario’, a famous antique statue – is Zoffany suggesting a debate between natural and ideal beauty?


Life models were usually male. It was considered improper for female artists to attend life-drawing classes; the only women in this painting, the painters Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, were founding-members of the Royal Academy and have been represented as portraits hanging on the wall. There were no other female Academicians until the twentieth century.

He who endeavours to copy nicely the figure before him not only acquires a habit of exactness and precision, but is continually advancing in his knowledge of the human figure.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, First President of the Royal Academy, A Discourse delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, 2 January 1769


Johan Joseph Zoffany (Frankfurt 1733-London 1810)

The Academicians of the Royal Academy

Annibale Carracci (Bologna 1560-Rome 1609)

A reclining nude

Attributed to Pietro da Cortona (Cortona 1596-Rome 1669)

A seated male nude

Benedetto Luti (1666-1724)

A male nude

William Hogarth (1697-1764)

A male nude holding a spear

Guercino (Cento 1591-Bologna 1666)

A recumbent male nude