The forgotten Swiss portraitist and his extraordinary pastels: Jean-Etienne Liotard at the Scottish National Gallery reviewed

There’s a truth in Liotard’s work that seeks not to flatter and is the stronger for it

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

Jean-Etienne Liotard

Scottish National Gallery, until 13 September

This is not the biggest exhibition at Edinburgh and it will not be the best attended but it may be the most daring. While the main gallery at the Royal Scottish Academy, commandeered as usual for Festival season by the National Galleries of Scotland, hosts a glittering exhibition of David Bailey photographs, the lower galleries offer three small rooms of Jean-Etienne Liotard.

Who? You may well ask, because for anyone not schooled at the Courtauld, Liotard is likely to be as obscure as Bailey is recognisable. Drawing the two together in the same building is less of a leap than it might appear, however, for Liotard was also an eminent portraitist of his time, and, like Bailey, was himself a celebrity figure.

Liotard, who was born in Geneva in 1702, trained as a miniaturist, executing works of delightful delicacy in enamel or watercolour. He also produced capable, if unremarkable, oils and was an accomplished printmaker but he became renowned above all for his extraordinary pastel portraits.

Pastel is a problematic medium. Made by binding dry pigment with gum to form a stick of colour, it is a versatile but awkward tool that is usually best exploited in energetic drawings where its potential for expressive mark-making can flourish. Think Degas. Liotard took pastel in the other direction. Informed by his miniaturist experience, he coaxed his pastels into forms of the most exquisite smoothness. His pigments blend like soft paint with vivacious results; practical demonstrations of his stated belief in art as a mirror of nature.

‘Truth prevailed in all his works,’ said Horace Walpole, and the Edinburgh exhibition shows why Liotard became so sought after in the courts and society houses of 18th-century Europe. The portraits that leap from these dark purple walls are fascinating, vivid depictions of royalty, aristocracy and family. Liotard’s skill lies in his ability to snare character and to produce an unusually wide array of textures and tones from his pastels. He draws hair that you could comb, transparent lace that begs to be felt between thumb and fingers, and gleaming, radiant silk. The eyes, the flesh; these belong to the living. Two and a half centuries after being committed to vellum, these people still breathe, still see.

There’s a truth in Liotard’s work that seeks not to flatter and is stronger for it. Charlotte Cavendish, Marchioness of Hartington, could hardly have been thrilled to see her sturdy nose so unflinchingly rendered but we see her now for what she was, a real person, not a characterless society cipher. Did Augusta, Princess of Wales, delight in the honesty of her ruddy face and double chin? No matter, we delight in it now.

Most charming of all are Liotard’s portraits of children. The pastel of Princess Louise Anne is a thing of deep tenderness. A tiny child in an oversized dress, dwarfed by the chair she sits on, gazes at the viewer with anxious eyes, lips slightly parted; a portrait of innocence and vulnerability. Louise died young and her fragile health and uncertain future are evident here. In contrast, Liotard’s portrait of his own daughter, Marie-Anne, is the epitome of vivacity and mischief. There have been few more affectionate and telling child portraits. Marie-Anne is gesturing for silence because the wooden doll she holds is sleeping. The doll and the fabrics are faultlessly rendered but the triumph is in the expression and in the eyes. This is a real child, drawn by a devoted father. It is a delightful, loving image and a high point of this show. The Marie-Anne portrait seems to borrow something from Chardin in its composition and the influence of the great Frenchman throughout Liotard’s work is inescapable. The attractive genre pastels, scenes of everyday life, bear particular comparison with Chardin but they hold their own.

This being Scotland, there must be a Scottish angle and it comes from the two miniatures of Charles Edward Stuart and his brother Henry Benedict, painted in Rome eight years before the Bonnie Prince led his doomed mission to Scotland. Commissioned by their father, The Old Pretender, these are intimate, exquisitely detailed images. Other miniatures on show include a splendid one of the artist in full Turquerie mode, as was his custom. His fez and extravagant beard seem to have been a sort of trademark.

The exhibition opens with a bizarre oil self-portrait of the artist laughing like a maniac and pointing with a strange, elongated finger. This is Liotard having the last laugh, back in fashion after two centuries, and enchanting everyone again.

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The exhibition comes to the Royal Academy on 24 October.

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