This, the earliest known self-portrait by Zoffany, was attributed to Mengs when sold at auction in 1989. Subsequent cleaning revealed Zoffany’s signature, together with the date 1756, on David’s belt. Zoffany was twenty-three years old and towards the end of his first stay in Rome when he decided to portray himself as the biblical hero David, at the moment following his defeat of the Philistine Goliath (1 Samuel 17:50). Zoffany depicts himself as the young and beautiful David wearing a sheepskin hat at a rakish angle and with heavy swathes of a sheepskin cape draped behind him. In his left hand he holds the stone with which he – a young and relatively diminutive shepherd boy – has struck Goliath on the brow, felling, and thus slaying, the powerful giant. Zoffany plays down the gruesome aspects of the scene, concealing the neck wound on Goliath’s severed head and making only subtle allusions to blood.

The interpretation of the subject is sensual, even homoerotic, an aspect of the picture that is investigated by Michael Watson, writing in the Art Bulletin of Victoria in 1995. Zoffany’s emphasis on David’s physical beauty – his muscular yet smooth and effeminate form, the undulating line of his back against the cape, the touch of sheepskin against skin, the slightly parted lips, and the intense engagement of the gaze – has precedents in earlier interpretations of this subject, by Donatello, Guido Reni and others.

William L. Pressly, writing in the art journal Apollo in 1995, has suggested that, in representing himself as David victorious over Goliath, the young Zoffany – anxious to prove his skills – conceived of himself as ‘the anointed one’, victorious in his challenge to the old masters.

Text by Dr Ruth Pullin from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 106.


  • Title: Self-portrait as David with the head of Goliath
  • Creator: Johan Zoffany
  • Date Created: 1756
  • Physical Dimensions: 92.2 x 74.7 cm (Unframed)
  • Type: Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with the assistance of the Isabella Mary Curnick Bequest and The Art Foundation of Victoria, 1994, © National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Provenance: Sale, Dessins et Tableaux Anciens, Gersaint, Pavillon Josephine, Strasbourg, 17 November 1989, no. 265 ‘David et Goliath’ (attributed to Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–79); from which purchased by Richard L. Feigen, New York; with Richard L. Feigen, New York until 1994; from whom acquired by the NGV with the assistance of the Isabella Mary Curnick Bequest and The Art Foundation of Victoria, 1994.
  • Biography: Johan Zoffany was born near Frankfurt on 13 March 1733. His family later moved to Regensburg, where Zoffany’s father became court cabinetmaker and architect, and the young Johan was apprenticed to Martin Speer (c.1702–1765). In 1750, at the age of seventeen, Zoffany went to Rome, where he studied under the respected portrait painter Agostino Masucci and received instruction from the German expatriate artist Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779). Zoffany returned briefly to Regensburg in 1757 before settling in London in 1760, establishing himself as a painter of portraits and conversation pieces (group portraits of fashionable individuals at ease, in domestic interiors or garden settings). He became a Royal Academician, on the recommendation of George III, in 1769. Thus began a pattern of aristocratic patronage and acceptance in high society, which, although the artist’s career included significant periods in Italy and India, saw him as an important member of the British school. He died in London in 1810.

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