Chewy pastels: how Jean-Étienne Liotard transformed a derided medium

When Liotard came to England, Sir Joshua Reynolds sniffed at his pastels. A new Royal Academy exhibition shows just how wrong he was.

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In 1753 Sir Joshua Reynolds, Britain’s grand arbiter of art, wrote sniffily about a Swiss-born portraitist newly arrived in town; the work of Jean-Étienne Liotard, he said, was “just what ladies do when they paint for amusement”. This was not a judgement based entirely on observation. Reynolds was envious of Liotard’s success and that he could charge 25 guineas for a portrait in pastels. He disliked, too, the foreigner’s showmanship – his Turkish clothes, Moldovan cap and a beard so long that it touched his belt, which led Reynolds to intuit that there was “something of the Quack from his appearance”. He dismissed the whole publicity-seeking rigmarole as “the very essence of Imposture”.

There were, however, artistic reasons, too. Pastels, the medium that brought Liotard (1702-89) fame, were ideal for small-scale domestic pictures but lacked the gravitas necessary for the grand stuff Reynolds both practised and preached. Nor did Liotard flatter his sitters (“Truth prevailed in all his works,” said Horace Walpole, “grace in very few”) or fill his work with elevating classical allusions. That Liotard was in great demand by the Continent’s society and courts was another reason for disapproval. Both the man and his pictures were showy, lightweight and rather below the salt.

Yet Reynolds’s prejudice left him blind to Liotard’s strengths. His technique in pastels and chalk was exquisite; he worked across an extraordinary range – using enamel, pastels, oils, chalks, watercolour on ivory, etching and mezzotint; having lived for  four years in Constantinople, he was at the leading edge of the new fashion for orientalism; and his verisimilitude was perfectly in tune with the burgeoning age of sensibility. His pictures were also exceptionally beautiful.

In Britain, Reynolds won the argument, and although Liotard exhibited works at the Royal Academy in 1773 and 1774 during a second visit to Britain, he has never been seen here in quite the same exalted light as his contemporaries Chardin and Watteau, or even a shallower talent such as Maurice Quentin de La Tour. Reynolds’s power came from his position as the first president of the Royal Academy, so there is a nice synchronicity that the RA is belatedly making up for his disapproval with a show of 82 of Liotard’s pictures that will finally win him something of the renown he deserves.

Liotard, like Voltaire (whom, sans beard, he resembled), was one of the 18th century’s great cosmopolitans. Born in Geneva, he trained in Paris; having failed to win a place
at the academy there, he travelled to Italy, the Levant, Constantinople, London, Amsterdam and Vienna. He married a Dutch Huguenot and drew the portraits of members of the royal houses of Moldavia, the Holy Roman empire, France and Britain – both the ruling Hanoverians and the Stuart pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie. For good measure he painted Pope Clement XII, too.

That these august sitters wanted to be depicted in pastels rather than oils shows just how refined his technique had become. Pastels are essentially powdered pigments bound with gum; they can be used in broad sweeps, like chalk or crayon, or sharpened to give a fine line. If used on vellum or special, slightly textured paper, the result is a matt finish that perfectly mimics the texture of flesh. Pastel, however, is very difficult to correct or erase and although the colours are stable – hence the jewel-like hues on display here – it is prone to flaking. Once finished, Liotard’s portraits were immediately made safe under glass. Yet float glass could only be manufactured up to a certain size, which is one of the reasons the pictures are modest in scale.

Liotard used pastels not just for his portraits but also for the still lifes of fruit he started to draw in later life. Sometimes, as in the portrait circa 1761 of Suzanne Curchod (who was loved by Edward Gibbon, married the French finance minister Jacques Necker, and was mother to Madame de Staël), he combined the two. These, and his clever trompe l’oeil, show a delight in close observation that is evident in his treatment of the silks and furs worn by his sitters, especially the drawings of costumes and customs he made in Constantinople.

Liotard was an innovative artist, too. In an engaging and almost mocking self-portrait in oils of 1770 he shows himself exaggeratedly grinning (gap tooth and all) and gesticulating. It was a picture he took with him on his European travels to advertise his skills, although none of his subsequent sitters chose to be portrayed in like manner. For a black-and-red chalk drawing of 1762 showing the seven-year-old Marie Antoinette, he put a coloured wash on the reverse of the sheet to show through and intensify the colour of her dress and hint at the colour of her hair.

Artist and sitter died within four years of one another: Liotard at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Marie Antoinette in 1793, by which time Liotard’s style looked like the work of a different, more innocent age. Now, though, it appears both fresh and highly skilled and a testament to just how wrong Reynolds was.

Runs until 31 January 2016. For more details, visit: royalacademy.org.uk

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister