The first retrospective exhibition in the UK devoted to the idiosyncratic Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard opened at the Royal Academy of Arts on the weekend. The exhibition covered the artist’s time in Paris, Vienna, Geneva, Constantinople and London, with 70 of his rarely seen works.
Jean-Etiane Liotard (1702-1789) was one of the most sophisticated artists of Enlightenment Europe. A creator of brilliant candid portraits, he excelled at the delicate art of pastel. Several royal families commissioned him, among which a portrait of seven year old Austrian princess Marie Antoinette graces his collection. She will die at the guillotine as Queen of France thirty years later.
It is a small inclusive exhibition arranged in six parts. In the first we are introduced to Liotard and his family, which provides a delightfully intimate insight into his domestic life. He portrays his daughter and wife with tender affection in his meticulous miniatures. Perhaps the most stand out piece of this section is his own self portrait titled Self Portrait Laughing. It is a pinnacle piece of his collection, highlighting his partiality for unflinching truthfulness and dedication to detail in his work. One could say it is an unflattering portrait; Liotard paints himself grey and lacking dentures, but the superlative pastels and vivid colour are typical features of his artistic temperament.
He was no flatterer that much is evident when you come across his portraits of the Countess of Guilford and Marchioness of Harington. Both are from 1754 and are anything but idealized. Still, even when depicting a double chin or bulbous nose you cannot help but admire the artists crystalized colour, attention to detail and nuances. The texture of the Countess of Guildford’s royal blue velvet garment is captured in minute detail. She wears a fur colour and her dress is lined in the same material. The fact that we can as viewers notice these distinctions on a flat canvas is testament to the artist’s talent.
His portraits of the Royal children of Europe are perhaps some of Liotard’s finest examples of his work. Following commissions received in Rome in 1736-37 from the exiled Stuart Court, Liotard went on to establish his highly successful career as a painter of the royal families. Among these portraits the painting of the sickly Princess Louise Anne (1754) is perhaps the greatest physical manifestation of Liotard’s artistic sensibilities. The work probes into the sitter’s individual character revealing a sympathetic relationship between artist and model. Princess Louise Anne with her mouth slightly ajar is almost overwhelmed by the attention received. Her piercing blue eyes are captured by the artist and her regal dress is slightly too large. As she sits the dress falls down leaving her naked décolletage open. She is portrayed as pale and delicate and would die at the tender age of 19.
Liotard’s hung works are marked by his verisimilitude in the treatment of physical features and costumes. His use of superlative pastels reminds one of the frescoes from the Renaissance. His clarity, calm, and unflinchingly honest art is a testament to the era of Enlightenment.
A wonderful exhibition hung at the Royal Academy and well worth the visit.
Jeane-Etienne Liotard is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 24 October 2015 to 31 January 2016.
Tickets can be booked online at,https://tickets.royalacademy.org.uk/performancelist.asp?ShoID=2450