Jean-Etienne Liotard – Royal Academy
To the RA and the Sackler Wing – lift working this time – to see the first exhibition of the Genevan portrait painter’s work to be presented in Britain. I was not familiar with his work before I set foot in the six room exhibition.
Born in 1702 and dying in the tumultuous year of 1789 – to add to the piquancy of the year of his death the exhibition features a portrait of a seven year old Marie Antoinette – Liotard was operating at the height of what we term the Age of Enlightenment. It was a period of revolution both political and of thought. Old conventions and traditions were being challenged and overthrown. And Liotard was part of that trend, at least as far as art was concerned.
Liotard was a peripatetic artist, travelling extensively around the principal capitals of Europe in the search of rich patrons and commissions. He worked in Paris, Rome, Vienna, Rome, London and spent four years in Constantinople. The astonishingly vibrant self-portrait is thought in part to have served as his calling card or advert.
In Constantinople Liotard recorded what to Western eyes were exotic Eastern scenes and sights and cashed in on the rather bizarre fad of rich Western lads and lasses dressing up in Turkish garb. His reputation was such that he was able to command substantial fees for his portraits and attracted the patronage of many of the crowned heads of Europe. The exhibition has a mix of his work in the Ottoman empire (room 2) and society (British – room 3 and Continental – room 5) and court portraits (room 4). The first room is taken up with portraits of the artist himself – he was an inveterate self-portraitist – and his family whilst the sixth – and to my mind the most satisfying features still lives, what are known as genre paintings depicting scenes of everyday life and some interesting trompe l’oeil which pave the way for the likes of Escher.
Liotard worked mainly, but not exclusively – there are water colours on enamel, minatures, works in chalk and engravings – in pastel and the portraits, mainly half-length, are broadly set against a plain background, emphasising the features of the sitter, not altogether to their benefit. Whilst he is no Lucian Freud, he did not airbrush their features – it would be interesting to know what the rather dumpy Countess of Guildford thought of her portrait when she first saw it.
What comes through loud and clear is Liotard’s naturalistic style – these are not formal poses but often the subjects are shown at ease, reading, gesticulating and/or smiling – something which, as we have discussed before, was rare in a portrait – that is why the Mona Lisa is so unusual – because of the state of their teeth. He has a fine eye for detail and some of the attention to the clothing is simply wonderful, enhanced by the plain backgrounds.
Because of the naturalistic style some of the portraits are haunting, particularly those of the ailing Princess Louisa Anne who died soon afterwards and the queen of Moravia grimly hanging on to her throne.
I’m not a great fan of portraits but I was impressed by the freshness of Liotard’s approach and his attention to detail.
As I had some time on my hands I popped in to see Daniel Maclise’s splendid and enormous cartoon of The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher after the battle of Waterloo, drawn in 1858-9. It is an astonishing piece of work,, some 13 metres long, and the painted version is to be found in the Houses of Parliament. Having hidden in storage for decades it was restored in time for the bicentennial commemoration of the battle.