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.