diduknow.info - nuggets of knowledge for your noggin
Portrait Detectives

Extra Information on 'The Family of Sir William Young'

Whole portraitWho Are These People?

This portrait shows a typical, wealthy 18th century family. They are relaxing and enjoying themselves. This type of painting is called a conversation piece. This meant that rather than just sitting there, the people in the painting look like they are talking or doing something. This makes the painting look alive and more interesting. The artist, Zoffany, helped develop the fashion for this type of piece, positioning the sitters as if they are actors.

The family is wearing what we would call fancy dress; 17th century Van Dyck costumes. This was extremely popular in Britain around 1770. This is one of the clues that shows the painting was commissioned: the family have obviously gone to a lot of trouble to prepare for this portrait.

The musical instruments held by some of the family show that they liked music. We call items like these 'props'. Sir William (in the middle) is shown playing a cello. His wife and daughter (next to him) are both playing the theorbo (a string instrument like a lute).

Painting twelve people would have been quite difficult for the painter, Zoffany. To get round this problem he has divided the sitters into smaller groups. This means that they do not all have to pose at the same time.

How Do We Know That The Family Is Wealthy?

Artists were paid according to the number of people in the painting. A portrait with so many people would have been very expensive. This suggests that the Young family is wealthy. We can see another clue to the family's fortune on the left of the painting; the black boy. This suggests that their wealth probably came from the slave/sugar trade in the West Indies. However, this boy looks more like a servant than a slave. He is dressed in similar clothing to the family, he is wearing an expensive earring and is holding the small boy. Slaves usually wore metal collars as well.

Portraits like this were often commissioned (paid for) to celebrate an event. It is thought that this one marks the time when Sir William became a baron and was made Governor of Dominica. Another possibility is that it celebrates his daughter's marriage.

Who Was The Artist?

The artist was Zoffany. He was a German artist who had painted for a German Prince and his palace before arriving in England in around 1760. At first Zoffany was not successful in England. However, he was discovered by the famous actor, David Garrick (whose portrait is included in this unit) and fame followed. The highpoint came when Queen Charlotte and King George III became his patrons. Two of his royal family portraits are in Windsor Castle.

In 1772 the Queen sent Zoffany to Florence to paint scenes for her. He stayed there until 1778, during which time he painted for the Austrian Imperial family and was awarded the title, Baron of the Holy Roman Empire. On his return to England he found himself out of favour with the King and Queen. Instead he went to India and there painted for Indian princes and the British there. He eventually returned to Britain in 1789.

Portrait Detectives homepage | Begin the tour

Tour this portrait
Portrait detectives homepage