Jean-Etienne Liotard Back

The exhibition, Jean-Etienne Liotard, was at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh from 4th July to 13th September 2015. It is currently at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 31st January 2016. The review below is of the Scottish National Gallery’s version of the exhibition.

Jean-Etienne Liotard (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh & Royal Academy of Arts, London) constitutes the first UK exhibition dedicated to the titular artist. As noted by the exhibition’s catalogue, this lack of critical attention is in part due to the fact that Liotard was, and still is, an artist who defies easy categorisation. He was both aesthetician and artist, painter and printmaker, pastellist and writer; his portraiture comprises aspects of both intimacy and formality; and he produced images and objects for the Hanoverian royal family as well as the exiled Stuart court. Even Liotard’s nationality was the subject of contention, with both the Swiss and the French claiming him as their own.

Such difficult juxtapositions hinder the construction of the clear, linear narratives that exhibitions tend to favour. By attempting to provide an almost kaleidoscopic view of the diffuse aspects of an artist’s life and work, monographic exhibitions often struggle with the sheer variety of works shown and the issues at stake within them. Jean-Etienne Liotard is no exception. However, whilst suffering almost unavoidably from the complexities posed by Liotard’s polymathy, the exhibition nevertheless succeeds in presenting the diverse talents and accomplishments of its subject. In accordance with the artist’s varied output, the exhibition is divided into several distinct areas: familial and self-portraits; society and court portraiture; genre paintings, still lives, and trompe l’oeil paintings; and finally – a section examining his images of ‘the Levant’ – culminating in a show that reinforces the breadth and importance of Liotard’s oeuvre.

Redolent with informality, intimacy and impermanency, pastel is the predominant medium in the show. Though the exhibition contains many striking pastel portraits of both foreign and British royalty, it is perhaps the images of Liotard’s own family that best exemplify these qualities. The portrait of his young daughter Marie-Anne Françoise Liotard with a Doll (c.1744, Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna) for example, exemplifies the familiarity and immediacy typical of Liotard’s portraits. Marie-Anne is shown as playfully gesturing to the viewer to be quiet, lest they wake the doll she clutches to her chest – a poignant family moment appropriately rendered through the intimate medium of pastel. The portrait is displayed near a mezzotint of another of Liotard’s daughters, this time shown gazing at a miniature held in her hands. The close display of the images – one a playful and particular portrait executed in pastel, the other a reproducible image more like a genre piece than an individualised portrait – encourages reflection upon the deep connection between medium and function, or the dichotomy of public and private within a single image.

Such tensions are also prevalent in the second room of the exhibition, devoted to society and court portraiture. If the previous room prompted meditations on medium and materiality, this room’s theme is likeness and detail. Liotard’s portraits of David Garrick and his wife, Eva Marie, for example, are accompanied by an excerpt from the actor’s own journals in which he noted that he believed the portrait to be ‘very like’, whilst Horace Walpole’s assessment of Liotard’s portraits as ‘extremely like’ is also cited. Yet this attention to veracity and detail is accompanied by no less of the sensitivity and familiarity that characterises his familial portraiture. Nowhere is this clearer than in his arresting portrait of Princess Louisa Anne (1754, Royal Collection, London). The image can only be described as haunting, possessing what the painting’s label astutely calls an ‘arresting directness and frailty’. Like Liotard’s portrait of his own young daughter, this pastel image constitutes a potent culmination of form and function, of meaning and materiality. Here, Liotard exploits the fragility and ephemerality of the pastel medium to echo that of Princess Louisa Anne’s own, showing the delicate child as wide-eyed, pale skinned, and with her too-big dress slipping down her shoulders. Divorced from the typical presentation of royalty found within court portraiture, Liotard’s pastel portraits are committed to showing the human side. His royal subjects are depicted drawing, at music, or constructing houses of cards: as playful, creative, emotional, and fragile, in turn. Featuring a wide variety of these images together, the exhibition highlights the differences between the narratives of pomp and power told by traditional royal portraiture and the sensitivity of such intimate commissions, which instead reflect the individuality and human nature of their sitters.

The second room of the exhibition also includes two freestanding display cases. One of these shows a display of two portrait miniatures, the first depicting the young ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, Charles Edward Stuart, and the second George IV as a young man. Whilst the show fails to highlight the irony of this pairing, the display serves to give a sense of the multitudinous forms that contemporary portrait practices comprised. The miniature of George, Prince of Wales (1754, private collection), for example, is displayed opposite a larger scale pastel of the same sitter, affirming the intimate and affective nature of the larger portraits by highlighting their relation to these smaller, more apparently emotive, images.

Signalling the beginning of the exhibition’s exploration of Liotard’s travels in the Levant region, the final room of the exhibition is dominated by an imposing full-length portrait of the traveller and archaeologist Richard Pococke (1740, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva) in orientalising dress.  Whilst displaying a number of important works by Liotard from his residency in Constantinople, this aspect of the exhibition could have been vastly improved by a more critically-engaged consideration of ‘Orientalism’ during this period. Though the exhibition’s catalogue carefully unpicks Liotard’s time in the Levant in relation to a Saidian conception of Orientalism, these works are presented unproblematically within the exhibition itself.  With little space afforded to discussing the culture of turquerie more broadly, questions such as what this cultural appropriation meant to its contemporary viewers are unprofitably avoided.

The remaining space of the room is devoted to Liotard’s genre pieces, still lives, and trompe l’oeil paintings. The section constitutes a logical progression from the show’s earlier emphases on both materiality and realism, and is perhaps that which most evidently displays Liotard’s technical virtuosity.  Shown alongside his famously captivating The Chocolate Girl, Liotard’s Trompe l’oeil with Two Bas-reliefs and Two Drawings (1771, The Frick Collection, New York) is innovatively displayed on a flat piece of wood, almost as if looking down upon the table top that Liotard depicts, highlighting the artist’s ingenuity as well as the materiality and tangibility of the piece itself.

At Edinburgh, the exhibition was shown alongside the gallery’s summer blockbuster, Bailey’s Stardust, which was displayed in the Scottish National Gallery’s main exhibition space.  In contrast with the glitzy, celebrity-filled photography of David Bailey, Jean Etienne Liotard was a much quieter show, but it was no less important.  On the contrary, the exhibition represented a brave attempt on the part of its organisers to bring attention to a lesser known artist, showing many works from private collections previously not shown in public. The exhibition’s catalogue clearly identifies raising Liotard’s profile as one of its aims, citing its ambition to bring the artist ‘to the attention of a much wider appreciative audience’.  In highlighting the beauty, emotion and variety of Liotard’s work, the show certainly achieved this.  With a major show at two of the leading exhibition venues in the country, Liotard’s star is most definitely on the ascendant, and after seeing the Edinburgh show, I await future exhibitions examining the artist with enthusiasm.