Jean-Etienne Liotard: pastel pioneer

Published 18 September 2015

The Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard was one of the great portraitists of the Enlightenment. Christopher Baker introduces the idiosyncratic Orientalist whose travels through the courts of Europe and beyond resulted in works of exceptional delicacy.

  • From the Autumn 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    When in 1753 the artist Jean-Etienne Liotard arrived in London, Joshua Reynolds took a dim view of both his work and appearance. The British painter considered that there was “something of the Quack” about Liotard, that his behaviour was the “very essence of Imposture” and, worst of all, that “his pictures are just what ladies do when they paint for amusement”. You can almost hear the sniff of disapproval.

    Who was this upstart and why did the future President of the Royal Academy consider him so unsavoury? Liotard was certainly an exotic creature, and then, as now, a testing figure to categorise. He was born in 1702 in Geneva, when it was an independent republic, and trained there and in Paris, becoming one of the outstanding creators of portraits of the 18th century. He spent four years in Constantinople (1738-42) and subsequently enjoyed considerable success, exploiting his potent reputation as an Orientalist painter, working at the courts of Vienna, Paris and London, as well as finding lucrative employment in many other cities.

    Reynolds’ damning comments were in part based on professional rivalry, as Liotard was soon to do well in Britain, charging substantial sums for his work and securing royal commissions. He had developed as a marketing ploy an intriguing image, wearing a long gown and red hat acquired in the Levant and sporting a splendid beard (Self-portrait in Profile, 1753; below). These attributes fascinated patrons and seemed to have fuelled Reynolds’ disdain. Perhaps above all, what troubled the British artist was that Liotard excelled at using pastels – an art form associated with domestic settings and continental fashion, which could be dismissed, Reynolds thought, to the realm of female diversions.

  • Pastels in fact have an illustrious history. They require great technical skill to master and were very much the medium of the moment. Renaissance artists such as Leonardo and Barocci had experimented with them and by the mid- 18th century they were especially in vogue in France. One commentator noted in 1746 that they had been “embraced… with a frenzy” by the exhibition-going public in Paris. Artists such as Maurice Quentin de La Tour could employ them to create portraits of great immediacy and naturalism, with high-key colours, sparkling highlights and accurately rendered, gorgeous fashions. These were all achievements Liotard was to match in his own distinctive manner.

    Shaped into sticks, pastels consist of pure powdered pigments combined with a filler,such as plaster of Paris, and a binder, like gum arabic. The pigments can provide an artist with a wide-ranging palette and the sticks were manufactured with varying degrees of hardness, allowing for broadly applied or more detailed linear work. Liotard used pastels on paper and vellum (made of calf skin), which provided an especially smooth support, creating images of an intimate size of dazzling audacity. The medium was especially well suited to the career he carved out for himself as a travelling artist, because ‘dry-colours’ or crayons, as pastels were called, could be easily transported in a small box and were applied relatively quickly – not requiring all the paraphernalia and time demanded by oils.

  • His feisty daughter is shown with twinkling eyes and an emphatic gesture – with her finger she makes the sign to keep silent.

  • Jean-Etienne Liotard, Marianne Liotard Holding a Doll

    Jean-Etienne Liotard, Marianne Liotard Holding a Doll, c.1775.

    Pastel on parchment. 45 x 50 cm. Bundesmobilienverwaltung, Vienna, MD 040458. Photo © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsgesellschaft m.b.H. Photography: Edgar Knaack.

  • Liotard would have bought his pastels ready made from an artists’ supplier. There were a number who produced them in various European cities following different recipes, but it was generally agreed that the finest were manufactured in Lausanne by Bernard-Augustin Stoupan.

    Liotard could meticulously refine his work with Stoupan’s pastels, layering and gently mixing or suffusing colours and textures by rubbing on the surface of the image with his fingers, a cloth or stump of paper. In expert hands the medium is capable of recording the subtleties of the bloom of flesh, as well as various textures of costume, such as the sheen of silk, nap of velvet, or tactile appeal of fur trimmings, and so conveying a sense of a direct encounter with the subject (Portrait of Julie de Thellusson-Ployard, 1760).

    We can glimpse a sitting with the artist through the eyes and pen of the English actor-manager David Garrick, who was portrayed by Liotard in Paris in 1751. Garrick recorded his meeting with ‘Leotarde’ in his journal, pronouncing the portraits he saw in the studio ‘very like’. On 14 June he sat for his portrait; this initial visit was followed by five additional sessions the same week as the portrait was completed. Whether all Liotard’s sitters had to submit to this number of encounters is unclear; the two men may have extended the process as they found each other genial company and dined together. The result is a quizzical character study, dominated by the rich, sonorous blue of Garrick’s coat, which seems to have been one of Liotard’s favourite pigments. The portrait is also typical of the artist’s work in the way he candidly focuses on essentials, setting his subject before a neutral backdrop.

    This approach contributed to the extraordinary directness and immediacy conveyed by his portraits, notably those of children, such as his study of his feisty daughter Marie-Anne- Françoise, who was depicted with twinkling eyes and an emphatic gesture (Marianne Liotard Holding a Doll, c.1775). She was the youngest of Liotard’s five children and her eldest brother wrote of this delightful work that “with her finger she makes the sign to keep silent, her doll being asleep”. The doll and child wear complementary clothes and are both rendered with an unerring intensity and conviction.

    The same sense of uncanny veracity was applied in 1754 when Liotard depicted the family of Augusta, Princess of Wales, the mother of King George III. Among the portraits he made for this commission that of Princess Louisa Anne perhaps stands out as the most endearing. It depicts with arresting charm the five-year-old princess, capturing her wide-eyed curiosity and frailty; in poor health all her life, she died of tuberculosis shortly after her 19th birthday. Liotard emphasised his sitter’s youth by placing her in an oversized chair, and her vulnerability, as she wears a dress that is too large for her that slips down.

  • He depicts with arresting charm the five-year-old princess, capturing her wide-eyed curiosity and frailty.

  • This ability to surpass what might ordinarily have been achieved with pastels was carried over to still life and genre or everyday life studies by Liotard, such as his outstanding L’Ecriture of 1752 (top). A large work on six sheets of joined paper, it represents a nod of respect to the genre paintings of Jean-Siméon Chardin, whose work Liotard would have seen from the 1730s in Paris.

    However, above all it encompasses a spellbinding range of effects. The models are two of Liotard’s relatives: the boy slyly glances at the writer’s manuscript, while shielding the light of a candle, which glows through his pudgy fingers. Its flame can melt the shiny sealing wax, the application of which will complete work on the document on the desk. Meanwhile, a diamond sparkles on the ring worn by the man as he casually rests his elbow on the cloth made of the most exquisite patterned silk. Highlights such as the light glinting on the ring were achieved by the building up of gouache or paste made of pastel, which stands proud of the surface of the paper and literally catches the light.

    A work of this ambition and refinement begs questions about how it has survived in such an excellent state. There were various methods of ‘fixing’ pastels in the 18th century through the gentle spraying of chemicals across the surface of a work and Liotard was certainly familiar with the claims made for them, although it remains unclear which of these he applied. Just as important was the issue of protecting pastels with glass – at this period expensive hand-blown glass – to ensure preservation quickly.

  • Jean-Etienne Liotard, Suzanne Curchod

    Jean-Etienne Liotard, Suzanne Curchod, c.1761.

    Bundesmobilienverwaltung, Vienna, MD 039860. Photo © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsgesellschaft m.b.H. Photography: Edgar Knaack.

  • Pastels such as L’Ecriture or his portrait of Suzanne Curchod (c.1761; above) are almost a manifesto for the medium, and provide irrefutable evidence that it could confidently compete with oil. In his treatise on art, which was published in 1781, Liotard advocated the importance of not loosely applying pastels in the form of ‘touches’; he sought to ensure the process of application was unseen and the illusion of reality or resemblance was paramount. This approach was at odds with the feathery, ethereal pastel portraits popularised by the 18th-century Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera with which Liotard’s works were sometimes compared. It chimed, though, with wider cultural developments, as he was living through a period of unprecedented observation and recording of all manner of natural and manmade phenomena. Scientists and artists were studying the material world with greater precision than ever before and received knowledge and opinions were set aside in favour of direct experience: empiricism was in the ascendant and Liotard brought this approach to his art.

    This tactic created a particular set of problems, however, for a maker of portraits, as flattery was often a key requirement in this genre. Liotard arrived in his mature works at a neat synthesis: his obsessive rendering of ravishing clothes conveyed the cosmopolitan status and wealth of his subjects, while his ‘warts and all’ approach celebrated the individuality of his sitters. His patrons appear to have been completely untroubled by the fact that he did not shy away from large noses or double chins. This was probably chiefly because his works were for private consumption, rather than being public and propagandist. They were hung in cabinets and picture closets, salons and withdrawing rooms and sometimes travelled with. They mirrored their sitters, rather than setting out to project on to or for them a sycophantic ‘improved’ image, and consequently in some instances seem remarkably modern.

    As such Liotard’s art draws on the verisimilitude associated with Dutch 17th-century painting (which he admired and collected) but combines this with the sensuality of French Rococo works, where an elegance and obsessive interest in details of fashion and modish deportment comes to the fore. The mix gets richer still because he applied this approach to a wide range of subjects in terms of geographical and social spread. Sober Genevan citizens, English Grand Tourists, exiled Jacobites, diplomats, princes and progressive thinkers all submitted to his scrutiny. They were no doubt drawn to the exotic spectacle he personally presented following his sojourn in Constantinople, which Reynolds found so distasteful, but also to the startling candour he offered which was unlike anything else on the market. It all contributed to the myths that built up around the artist. Lord Chesterfield memorably reported in 1755 on the contemporary taste among English women for cosmetics and claimed perhaps mischievously that Liotard “refused a fine woman [who was presumably heavily made up] to draw her picture [because] he never copied any body’s works but his own and God Almighty’s.”

  • Jean-Etienne Liotard, L’Ecriture

    Jean-Etienne Liotard, L’Ecriture, 1752.

    Bundesmobilienverwaltung, Vienna, MD 039862. Photo © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsgesellschaft m.b.H. Photography: Edgar Knaack.

  • Jean-Etienne Liotard is in The Sackler Wing at the RA from 24 October 2015 – 31 January 2016. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the National Galleries of Scotland.

    Christopher Baker is Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.


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