JOHAN ZOFFANY, R.A.
The artist by whom given to Major General Claude Martin (1735-1800), Lucknow, India, circa 1799
His sale, Tulloh & Co, Calcutta, 18 December, 1800
Purchased by Benjamin Wolff (1760 - 1866) presumably whilst in Calcutta,1817-1829,
Engelholm Manor, Copenhagen and by descent
It seems probable that this drawing was made in reference to the outstanding money owed by the Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula (1748-1797) to Zoffany. As early as 1789, Claude Martin had remarked in a letter to Ozias Humphry that "Ours good & worthy friend Mr Zoffani…. is not yet paid… to this day he has not yet Receive a farthing from the Vizier'. Zoffany had applied in 1798 to the East India Company for permission 'to return to Bengal to settle his private affairs and to practise as a painter'. Perhaps Zoffany felt that it would take something in the form of a witches sabbath to impel the Nawab to remunerate him.
The present drawing is a fantastical nightmare which perhaps draws on the grotesque and imaginative works of the early Netherlandish artist, Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), the sinister designs of Hans Baldung Grien (c.1484 - 1585), Jacques de Gheyn II (c.1565 - 1629), Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) and the French artist Claude Gillot (1673-1722).
Zoffany portrays a nude, old witch who steps forth and performs an incantation whilst holding a wand in her left hand. Above her head demons swirl, one with the Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula's decapitated head tied to its waist. In its hand is held an unmarked packet which we can assume to be Zoffany's owed payment.
Behind the incanting witch are two nude figures; one impaled upon a wooden spike as the other lewdly hugs it. To the right, two witches stir a cauldron whilst at the foot of the sheet, a skeleton preforms an act of torture on a figure so maleficent in nature that it horrifies an onlooking satanic beast. In the background, an enlarged bat looms.
The Nawab died on 21 September 1797, only eleven days after this drawing was made. Zoffany would not have found out about this news for at least six months. It is not entirely clear whether Zoffany was ever repaid.