Couple in a Mountain Landscape

Johan Zoffany (1733–1810)
Date: c. 1779
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 29 3/4 H x 32 W
Credit: Gift of Mary Taylor (Mrs. David C.) Hanrahan
Accession Number: 1945.15.27
The handsome couple in this painting form a stark contrast to the rugged landscape in which they pose. There is tension present in this work between their affectionate deportment, and elegant attire, and the overcast gloom of the valley beyond, a tension between fascination and fear. Johan Zoffany’s portrait reflects the emotional conflict common to European romanticism, much like English cleric John Dalton’s A Descriptive Poem addressed to Two Young Ladies at their return from viewing the mines near Whitehaven (1755):
Horrors like these at first alarm,
But soon with savage grandeur charm
And raise to noblest thought the mind:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The gloomy clouds, which solemn sail,
Scarce lifted by the languid gale
O’er the cap’d hill, and darken’d vale.
The German-born Zoffany led a peripatetic life that took him from Regensburg to Rome, London, Florence, Parma, and the Indian sub-continent. Throughout his long and varied career, he painted allegorical works, portraits, theatrical pictures, conversation pieces, and genre scenes. He painted King George III of England and his wife Charlotte, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Pietro Leopoldo, the acclaimed English actor David Garrick, and the ruler of Oudh, India, Asaf-ud-daula. To say he was a society painter captures only part of Zoffany’s notoriety. His paintings captivate viewers with their attention to detail, lively animation, and rich colors. The English connoisseur and antiquarian Horace Walpale declared Zoffany one of the three great English painters of his time (the other two being Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough); yet until recently, much of his life remained a mystery.
The couple in the portrait have long been identified as Samuel Blunt (1723–1800) and his second wife Winifrid Scawen (b. 1742), but evidence does not support the claim. The couple’s clothing suggests a date in the late 1770s or early 1780s, which would place Blunt in his mid-50s. The uniformed man in the painting, however, appears to be much younger in age. There also exists another painting by Zoffany of a man identified as Samuel Blunt, but the individual in that portrait shows no resemblance to the man in this painting. Furthermore, Samuel Blunt was not in the military, although his oldest son Robert was an officer in the Royal Horse Guards. Even though Robert died in 1780 before marrying, the couple may represent Robert and some unidentified female.