This 18th century oil on canvas painting is by Johan Zoffany, 1733-1810. It measures 98.5 cm X 123.5 cm (unframed).
This an important work because it is Zoffany’s only known Irish group. It was painted when Zoffany was establishing himself as the leading artist of conversation piece groups. Zoffany show his sitters in lively conversation and in a relaxed manner, a contrast to the formal portrait style.
In the same year as the painting of the Fitzgerald father and sons, Zoffany also painted a conversation piece of England’s Queen Charlotte with her eldest sons as well as a portrait of George Prince of Wales with his brother.
A conversation piece group is a portrait of two or more sitters engaged in conversation, or some other polite social activity. They are painted in a domestic or landscape setting. Conversation pieces were particularly popular in Britain and Ireland during the 18 century.
Zoffany was extremely accurate in the detail of his work and the symbols in the works are carefully chosen. George is seated on a fragment of antique sculpture with a warrior profile hinting at his career as a Captain in the Austrian Army. He embraces his younger son, Charles Lionel, and is affectionately watched by his dog, indicating domestic harmony.
The sculpture is of Hercules, a Classical demi-god, famous for strength and adventure suggesting strength in overcoming lifes challenges.
The eldest son, George Robert, flies a kite, a symbol of emerging freedom and an elegant activity.
There is an almost identical second version of the painting, signed and dated 1764 (Private Collection, England). It is probable that George, the father, intended one for each son. Close inspection reveals slight differences from the other version. A red shoot grows out of the background plants, the dog's tongue is shown and there are changes to the pebbles and engraved heads and ships on the kite
This is not the only time Zoffany painted two identical works to the same high standard. Some years earlier, he painted Mr and Mrs Garrick by the Shakespeare Temple at Hampton, 1762 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven and Private Collection, England).