Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast Back

The National Gallery has taken the opportunity to display its recent acquisition of The Lavergne Family Breakfast, by Jean Etienne Liotard, from the Estate of the late George Pinto under the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, as the centrepiece of this exhibition. Executed in pastel in 1754, it represents a luxurious domestic scene in which a very elegantly dressed young woman is seated beside a table, prepared for breakfast, and aids a young girl who carefully dips a piece of bread into her coffee held in a porcelain cup. Some twenty years later Liotard made an exact copy of it but painted in oil, lent from Waddesdon. These exquisite paintings hang side by side at the entrance to the exhibition and are seen in public together for the first time in 250 years, thereby inviting close scrutiny.

NG6685| Jean-Etienne Liotard| The Lavergne Family Breakfast, 1754, Pastel on paper stuck down on canvas | 80 × 106 cm| Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government from the estate of George Pinto and allocated to the National Gallery, 2019 © The National Gallery, London

Pastel was an increasingly popular medium in the 18th century and widely used in Europe especially for portraits. Its qualities of softness and delicacy are here evident in The Lavergne Family Breakfast in the beautiful portrayal of the figures, their dresses and the twisted paper curlers in the young girl’s hair,                          with every detail minutely observed. The shine on the coffee pot and raised highlight on the milk jug, together with the porcelain cups are reflected on the lacquered table. A sheet of music is seen in the open drawer inscribed “Liotard/a lion [in Lyon]/1754”. The later version in oil is firmer with no perceptible under drawing visible as in the pastel version and the only significant differences are a shadow of the woman’s head in the background  and different colours decorating the porcelain cups.  The sheet of music seen in the open drawer reads “Liotard / a londres/ 1773”.  The exhibition displays how pastels were made and used and the chapter entitled ‘Precious Dust: the Rise of Pastel in the 18th century’ by Francesca Whitlum-Cooper in the excellent accompanying publication gives a valuable account of the development of pastels and their techniques.

Liotard is hardly a household name and this modest exhibition presents an extraordinarily talented and fascinating artist who was born in Geneva in 1702. His parents were French Huguenots and his father a tailor and merchant in textiles. After a brief apprenticeship with Danielle Gardelle, a miniaturist and enameller, he moved to Paris, entering the studio of Jean-Baptiste Massé, a print maker. He is introduced by a sequence of self-portraits which, like Rembrandt, he produced throughout his life. One of the three small portraits mounted on a sheet which belonged to Horace Walpole (British Museum), is an etching of himself as a serious wide-eyed young man with a bulbous nose and curly hair made during the twelve years he spent in Paris. In the centre of this sheet is an etched self-portrait with cap and long beard which is a record of an incredibly detailed painted enamel miniature, Self Portrait, (c1755, Royal Collection Trust).  He produced this unusual self-portrait of himself in Turkish dress with a long beard after spending four years (1738-42) in Constantinople. He had travelled there with William Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon, later 2nd Earl of Bessborough, in the company of a small group of Grand Tourists whom he had met in Rome. Throughout the journey he made numerous of drawings in red and black chalk of women and their costumes, for example, the Portrait of Signora Marigot, Smyrna, (1738, Musée du Louvre) in her elaborate dress freely drawn but the details minutely observed. The Woman from Constantinople sitting on a Divan, (1738-42, Musée du Louvre) in her Turkish costume would remain in his stock of images for future commissions. During his stay he was befriended by the British Ambassador, Sir Everard Falkener, who not only introduced him to the expatriate community there but was to become a future patron.  While living in Constantinople, like many visitors, he went native and dressed as a Turk. He grew his beard which he continued to wear after his return to Western Europe, no doubt to distinguish himself and attract attention in a time when Turkerie was much in fashion.

A large map of Europe and Turkey displayed on one wall charts his many travels as he was constantly on the move between patrons and frequently returned to Geneva. His fame accompanied him and he was much in demand by the crowned heads of Europe. On his first visit to London in 1753, Augusta, Princess of Wales, commissioned a pastel portrait of herself and nine of her children. A likely introduction may have been facilitated by Sir Everard Falkener, who on his return to Britain, was appointed Secretary to Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the brother-in-law of Princess Augusta, and is represented in the enamelled miniature Sir Everard Falkener (c1753-55, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford) . In contrast Liotard painted a striking pastel Portrait of Lady Falkener, (1754, Compton Verney) seated beside a table, with her work box and a thread in her hand.  She gazes at us from beneath a black ‘bergère’ trimmed with white ribbons while her white dress is glimpsed through her black lace shawl. His expertise in the use of pastel to render fabrics in his portraits is amply demonstrated by the sheen of the blue satin cape with its fur trim and cascading red ribbons worn by Charlotte Boyle, Marchioness of Hartington, (1754, Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement) and the dress worn in his portrait of Lady Anne Somerset, (c 1755, The Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement) with its design of sprigs of red flowers and blue trim echoing his drawings made in Constantinople. His realistic depiction of lace is exemplified in the wrap worn by Eva Maria Garrick, (c1754, Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement) enhanced with passages of impasto which he also used in the Lavergne Family Breakfast.

Liotard broke his stay in London, interrupting work on his royal commissions to travel to his sister’s family in Lyon in 1754, and,  quoting from his notice in the Public Advertiser the following year  he states that “he has brought over a Couple of large Conversation Pieces in Crayons, of his highest finishing”. Among them was The Lavergne Family Breakfast which he sold to the Earl of Bessborough for 200 guineas, apparently the highest price the artist had achieved to date for a single work. What is revealing is that his figures in the Breakfast scene and his portraits are painted with the same close scrutiny to which he subjects the still life objects:  they are beautifully observed but lacking in flesh and blood. Today one might cite comparison with the precise but lifeless waxwork images of Madame Tussauds. Nonetheless, one of the delightful features of this picture are the cups and saucers which have been identified as Japanese Imari-ware. Displayed in the exhibition is a Japanese Imari-ware cup and saucer, (c1690-1720, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden) with reddish flowers and blue leaves which is not dissimilar. In contrast an exceptional exhibit is the Tea Service, (c1775-78,  Rijksmuseum) or ‘tȇte-tȇte’ decorated with bouquets and foliate scrolls given to him on his last visit to Vienna in 1778 by the Empress Maria Theresa and contained in its original leather travelling case. During an earlier visit to Vienna, in 1743, he had been sent by the Empress to advise the newly established Imperial Porcelain Manufactory on its development of enamel colours.

Liotard’s life-long interest in porcelain and accoutrements for coffee and chocolate, are exemplified by his painting   Dutch Girl at Breakfast, (c1756, Rijksmuseum).  She is seated at a table pouring coffee from a silver urn into one of two porcelain cups on a reddish lacquer tray together with a milk jug and sugar basin all embellished with gleaming highlights. Painted in the Netherlands, it owes much to Dutch 17th century still lifes. It was there he met Marie Fargues, who consented to marry him if he cut off his beard.  He continued to experiment in different media and in the print proof of his Self-portrait, (c1778, British Museum) he uses roulette and engraving over mezzotint, showing himself resting his clean shaven chin on his hand. Towards the end of his life, with fewer commissions for portraits, his fascination with porcelain led him to paint Still Life: Tea Set, (c1781-83, J. Paul Getty Museum).On a tin tray a set of export Chinese porcelain is displayed in a most original way with cups upside down and spoons resting at different angles, and a plate of half-finished bread in the centre.   

This tightly knit exhibition brings out the most important aspects of Liotard’s long career and whets one’s appetite to find out more about him. His travels, his patrons and how he sold himself and his work, coupled with his constant experiments with different media. He died in 1789, when the world in which he worked and recorded was swept away.