by Roderick Conway Morris

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Liotard, Master of Pastels

By Roderick Conway Morris
London 3 December 2015
Bundesmobilienverwaltung, Vienna
'Marianne Liotard Holding a Doll' by her father, c.1775



The 18th century was the great age of pastels, and Jean-Étienne Liotard pushed their possibilities to new heights. His lifelong travels and extended sojourns in Italy, Istanbul, Vienna, Paris, London and Geneva made him an internationally famous practitioner of the medium.

Thanks to Liotard's peripatetic career, his works are now widely dispersed, and the difficulties of bringing them together for an exhibition are exacerbated by their physical delicacy.

These obstacles have been overcome by 'Jean-Étienne Liotard' at the Royal Academy, an exhibition of more than 70 pictures representing every stage of Liotard's long career. A number of the pieces have seldom or never been exhibited in public before, and many of them are in their original frames. The show is curated by Christopher Baker, William Hauptmann and MaryAnne Stevens and continues until Jan. 31.

Liotard was born in Geneva in 1702, the son of French Protestant parents who had taken refuge in Switzerland from religious persecution. He first studied with Daniel Gardelle, a painter of miniatures, in his hometown and traveled to Paris in 1723, where he spent three years in the studio of the miniaturist and engraver Jean-Baptiste Massé.

The Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera had spent a year in Paris at the beginning of the 1720s, producing many portraits that made the medium fashionable — and an attractive option for an aspiring young artist. Liotard's accomplishments as a pastellist helped him get started as a portraitist even after he was rejected by the elite Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, membership of which would have guaranteed him a steady flow of commissions.

The exhibition opens with a series of self-portraits, a form that Liotard used publicly to promote his image and privately to record the various phases of his life. An exquisite enamel miniature profile of himself of 1753 leaves no doubt of his mastery of color and of the most demanding painting techniques. It also suggests why pastels appealed to him, since their high concentrations of pure pigments in relation to their binding agents enabled him to produce intensely brilliant, almost enameled effects on a much larger scale.

An oil self-portrait executed nearly two decades later, of his grinning physiognomy revealing missing teeth, also alerts us to his insistence on 'truth to nature' — quirky for the times, and potentially quite unflattering to some of his less naturally favored subjects.

The English collector and aesthete Horace Walpole, the first owner of the Liotard enamel miniature profile, wrote of the artist that 'his likenesses are as exact as possible, and too like to please those that sit for him. Devoid of imagination, he could render nothing but what he saw before his eyes.' In reality, Liotard's ability to produce uncannily accurate likenesses was the key to his success and to the freshness and vivacity that these works retain today.

Accompanying the self-portraits are some portraits of his wife, Marie, and family. One of these in particular, of his little daughter Marianne raising an admonishing finger lest anyone make a noise and wake the wooden doll in her arms, is a small masterpiece. This is the first of a number of pictures in the exhibition that reveal Liotard's skill at depicting children, at once empathetic but free of sentimentality.

Two other outstanding examples are a poignant portrait of the six-year-old Princess Louisa Anne, daughter Augusta, Princess of Wales, wide-eyed and pale, perched on an adult armchair (she was to die in her late teens of consumption); and a likeness of Marie Antoinette, future queen of France, as a child in Vienna, one of the most charming images made of her at any time in her life.

In 1735 Liotard traveled to Italy, where he encountered two wealthy Englishmen on the grant tour — the Earl of Sandwich and the Hon. William Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon and later Earl of Bessborough — in a coffee house in Rome. They invited him to join them to record their onward journey through Greece to Istanbul. When the two aristocrats continued on to Egypt, the English ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Sir Everard Fawkener, persuaded the Swiss artist to stay on.

Liotard found ample work doing the likenesses of members of the foreign communities and amused himself capturing scenes of local life. Among the portraits is a splendid full-length oil of the English traveler and archeologist Richard Pococke in Ottoman dress with a backdrop of the Golden Horn, one of the several pictures on loan from the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva. Liotard spent four years in Istanbul and a further 10 months in the Province of Moldavia (now part of Romania) at the invitation of the governor Prince Constantine Mavrocordato.

Liotard adopted Ottoman dress and grew a long beard, which became his perennial style when he returned to Europe. During the 1740s and '50s he made his way first to Vienna, where he gained the patronage of the Empress Maria-Teresa, then to Paris and finally London. Succeeding sections of the exhibition display the royal portraits he was commissioned to execute in the Austrian, French and English courts.

The artist's signature exotic dress earned him in London the nickname of 'The Turk' and he was even mistaken for the real thing by one newspaper that described him as 'A Turkish Gentleman' who was 'dressed in the Habit of his Country, and remarkable by his Beard.'

The English painter Joshua Reynolds was less impressed, detecting 'something of the Quack from his appearance.'

The mainstream artistic establishments in France and England were skeptical of both the man and his art, but this did nothing to dent his popularity with his patrons, who included famous personalities such as the actor David Garrick and the writer Madame d'épinay, as well as prosperous professionals and aristocrats. His royal patrons valued him above all for his intimate likenesses of their families: He portrayed, for example, all the Empress Maria-Teresa's 11 children, and she took these images along with her on her travels.

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to still-lifes, genre and trompe l'oeil pictures. Included is a copy of the pastel that brought Liotard the most acclaim in his career — 'La Chocolatière,' a genre picture of a maid carrying a tray with a pot of hot chocolate. The original is in Dresden; the copy, from a private collection, has been attributed to the artist himself and is flanked here by his preparatory drawing for the original.

Two trompe l'oeil pictures display Liotard's illusionistic skills, while other genre scenes combine vignettes of domestic life with portraiture. The still-lifes of fruit are of a stunning quality, considering that Liotard was in his 80s when he painted them. And another study, done a few years earlier, of a disorderly post-breakfast tea-tray with upturned cups, scattered spoons and half-eaten crusts, provides a witty conclusion to the exhibition.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024