Zoffany was born Johannes Zauffaly in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, on 13 March 1733, the son of Anton Franz Zauffaly. Showing an early talent for drawing, he was apprenticed to a Regensburg painter, Martin Speer, who had been a pupil of Francesco Solimena. After only three years of his apprenticeship had elapsed, he traveled in 1750 to Rome, where he studied under Agostino Masucci and was influenced by Mengs. His earliest dated work is an altarpiece at Regensburg of 1753; his decorative work for the palaces of Trier and Ehrenbreitstein, done between 1757 and 1760, does not survive.
In the late 1750s Zoffany married Antonie Eiselein, daughter of a court councillor at Würzburg, who became homesick and left him sometime after 1760, when he moved from Trier to London in search of fame and fortune. After a short period of painting clock faces for Stephen Rimbault and draperies for Benjamin Wilson, he was patronized by David Garrick, for whom he did his first conversation pieces and scenes from theatrical performances. The latter were exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1762 on and were much acclaimed. Garrick effectively made Zoffany's reputation. Within a year or two the artist was working for Lord Bute, who was probably responsible for his introduction to George III and Queen Charlotte, of whom he became a favorite. In 1769 he resigned as a director of the Incorporated Society of Artists and was nominated a member of the Royal Academy. He was naturalized in 1772.
In 1771 Zoffany joined Joseph Banks' team of artists to accompany Captain Cook on his second expedition to the South Seas, but the scheme fell through. Instead in 1772 he decided to return to Italy and was commissioned by Queen Charlotte to paint the Tribuna of the Uffizi; he took with him Mary Thomas, a beautiful girl of humble origin who became the second Mrs. Zoffany and with whom he had five children. He did not leave Florence, where he found favor with the grand duke, son of the Empress Maria Theresa, until 1778. He then spent a year in Parma and returned to England, honored as a Baron of the Holy Roman Empire and member of the academies of Florence, Bologna, Cortona, and Parma, late in 1779. However, Zoffany found it difficult to regain his London practice; in 1783 he sailed for India and made his fortune in Calcutta, returning to England in 1789. He seems to have given up painting after about 1800, and died at his riverside home near Kew, at Strand-on-the-Green, Chiswick, on 11 November 1810.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 355-356.]