The Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard
traveled a great deal from his birthplace at Geneva. Twice
he visited the Netherlands: between 1755-1757 and 1771-1773.
He produced forty portraits and several of them bear a
relationship with the subject of eating and drinking.
Liotard’s first great journey brought him in 1738 to
Constantinople. When he returned to Western Europe he sported a
long beard and a fez. He called himself ‘le peintre turc’ and,
as the talent and reputation of this traveling pastellist grew,
so he capitalised on the fascination of eighteenth century
European society for the East. Liotard was a child of the time
of exoticism: Mozart’s opera ‘Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serial’ and
his ‘Alla Turca’, a treatise called ‘Moeurs et Usages des Turcs’,
of prints such as ‘Lady Mary as a Turk’ (B.M.), of the opening
of the Leipzig coffee house (three cups of the rich Turkish brew
was the recommended dose), and all this while the interest in
Chinese culture continued to increase.
Liotard was a huge success as a portrait painter in Vienna,
Paris and London, where Walpole called him ‘greedy beyond all
imagination’ and reproached him for ‘too much finishing and
retouching in his art.’ A coffee travel service for
two people given him by Kaiserin Maria Theresa of Austria is
testament of his bearing in high society. Having encountered
Montesquieu, Voltaire and the Marquis de Puisieux - the French
Ambassador to Naples, he went to Italy and made portraits of
James Stuart and several cardinals. This all happened before
Lord Bessborough took him to Constantinople where he stayed for
five years painting delightfully all the city’s inhabitants,
Armenian, Jew, or Greek, in a manner deeply sensitive to the
seething diversity of the place. A drawing of houses near
Constantinople of 1740, made in the same black and red crayon he
used for his preliminary sketches of heads, is a rare example of
a Liotard landscape, which contains the topographical precision
of Ruskin amidst the softness of Turner. The information given
about the buildings is draughtsmanship succeeding at its first
attempt. The foreground, a series of conscious diagonal marks,
wrote ‘Treatise of Principles and Rules for Painting’ between
1774-9, after his second trip to the Netherlands.
Published in Geneva in 1781, it brought his work into a fusion
with the realism of the seventeenth century Dutch painters.
Portraits were mostly done in oil paint on panel or on canvas.
Liotard made use of pastel colours on paper or parchment. The
pastels were produced from a mixtuxe of dried paste (hence
pastel), water and gum solution compounded with colour pigment.
The advantage of pastel crayon is that one can work fast and
form many nuances of colour. Due to the fact that the pastel
technique was virtually unknown in the Netherlands, Liotard was
able to score much success. He also mastered the process of the
miniature portrait - using water-colour paint on a small oval
ivory. Although it can be argued that Liotard’s pastels were
themselves miniatures blown up to a larger size, they are
realistic, sharply handled portraits against a blank background.
wooden stretcher, the pins and the stretched parchment can be
seen under a larger frame in a portrait of Maria Theresa. The
maximum format for his conventional pastel portraits under glass
was 60 x 50cm and the edges of the works, as in oil paintings,
went under the frame itself. The picture of Maria d’Arcey
(1745), wife of the English Ambassador in Venice, is the first
of many by Liotard to indulge in the magnificent and fashionable
royal blue in her costume. His tonal range, closer than one
might think from seeing reproductions of the work, might be
ascribed to the unconscious opening out of his personality from
the mentality of a miniaturist. The style was safe, set and
allowed for the celebration of pinpoints of light in the eyes or
an enhancing shadow upon the cheek. Form was assumed and not
created. In order to produce the attitude of the subject,
physiognomy was irrelevant.
works like ‘Johanna Fagel’ (whose father Hendrik Fagel, was
griffier of the Stategeneral of northern Netherlands),
Liotard followed the latest Parisian style in both clothing and
painting, using a deliberately worked cross-hatching and
finger-smudging technique. The resultant image appears almost
two-dimensional against a dark and light background. This
curiously archaic quality is more apparent in two small oil
portraits done in the Hague of children of the royal Oranje-Nassau
family. Whilst being a competent and proven
technician in the oil medium , these small paintings might be of
a rustic type of farmer’s children by a provincial artist. The
handwritten bill, flamboyantly covering two foolscap sheets, for
the portraits of’ the royal children, painted in the months of
April, May and June 1756, came to f.16,134.19 (Dutch Guilders)
and f.35,383.14 respectively. Allowing for the
inflationary spiral over two hundred years it is evident that
his works fetched unheard-of prices.
Another small red and black crayon sketch shows Marie
Liotard-Farges, his wife, with their eldest daughter,
Marie-Jeanne. Liotard’s wife came from France, but they married
in Amsterdam and thereafter she seems to have insisted that he
get rid of the preposterous beard. He certainly did
and, in the process, grew in likeness to his contemporary,
a letter to Liotard, Marie was very religious. It is headed:
Aimer de tout ton coeur la Majeste Divine.
dementer jamais sa celeste origin,
Suive jusqu’a la mort la solide bertu,
Mesurer ta depence avec ton revenue,
Entre civil, honete, obligent!..
Amsterdam, Liotard’s family lived in a rented house on the
Raamgracht in the middle of en area of small industries and
businesses. In 1757 they left the Netherlands for Switzerland,
but in 1771 returned for a couple more years The lines of a
preliminary drawing made in 1772 (incorrectly annotated ‘fils du
peintre’ but in fact of Princess Louise van Oranjea-Nassau
as a baby), the anxiety of the artist to get the correct
attitude of the hands, and of the facial expression, exceeds his
visible concern to make any relationship between them. The heavy
brown end black marks and dots that are the costume show a speed
at which he wanted to be rid of the burdensome side of his
There is a note by Rieck Jedgehuis (1729-1806) on how to make a
picture using the pastel crayon.
Bring the hand to the crayon.
2) Put in the
3) Put in the cold tints.
4) The warm tints.
5) The deep ground.
Put in the eyes, softy.
7) Lay over the ground.
8) The colour of the eyes
9) First highlights.
10) The second, deeper, highlighting.
De Kleeding, etc., versegsolde deselfde regels.
(The clothing etc. follows the same rules.)
Beneath the brown scrawl are two recent looking black crayon
blobs and a mauve one. On a nearby unfinished portrait of a
young man, the artist has from the beginning concentrated on the
face, hardly bothering to mark in the line of the body. On the
jacket however, three experimental daubs of leaf’ green and
yellow, look forward to the recreation of yet another garment of
Alexander Roslin, ‘The Swedish Painter’, was a friend of Liotard,
‘The Turkish Painter.’ Roslin’s portraits were
somewhat milder than those of Liotard in tone, but perhaps
better at character analysis. Another contemporary, J.P.
Perroneau, also visited the Netherlands. His trademark was a
more free use of the pastel medium than Liotard, working with a
nervous, textured manner. The pastels of Maurice Quentin de la
Tour seem more trustworthy (bestendiger) and have more
presence than those of Liotard.
There has been a marked fluctuation in prices obtainable by and
paid for works of portraiture since the time of Liotard.
Then the client would overturn all obstacles to have that
unique thing - mild flattery under the guise of an objective
portrait. Nowadays we have not moved on much further. The
difference between then and now is in an attitude to the
subject. Neither artist not client care to be enchanted by each
other. Perhaps this is the true reason why the magic has for a
while gone out of the portrait.
Adapted from a review
of 'Liotard in the Netherlands', exhibition, Utrecht,
Timothy Foster, 24th August 1985