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A quieter vision: the pastels of Liotard

Dessins de Liotard (1702–1789) The Louvre, Paris

A storm one cold winter’s day in Rome brought Jean-Etienne Liotard to Istanbul. In a café where he took refuge from the rain, he met an Englishman, William Ponsonby, the future Earl of Bessborough, who invited the painter to join his party on a tour of the East. Liotard accepted, and they set sail from Naples on April 3, 1738.

  • 'Servante levantine présentant une théière sur un plateau' (1740–42), Oskar Reinhart Foundation, Winterthur.
  • 'Dame de Constantinople assise sur un divan' (1738–42), the Louvre. Liotard's vision of the Orient is bathed in an even light and combines two contrasting approaches, delicacy of texture and the observation of a miniaturist. Simplicity of composition lends his work a curious modernity.
  • 'Autoportrait pathétique en Turc amoureux', painted around 1770, when the artist was 68, Museum of Art and History, Geneva.

The Louvre, together with the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, has staged the first comprehensive exhibition of the work of this Swiss-born painter. It covers the full range of Liotards oeuvre, from his early work as a miniaturist in Paris to his wonderful pastels. Among them are some thirty penetrating self-portraits, and a group of sixty sketches made during his four-year stay in istanbul. When Ponsonby and his party moved on to Egypt, Liotard decided to stay.

Liotard was fascinated by all he saw during his eastern journeys, and his work, beautifully observed, was to supply many of the rococco artists of his day, including Van Loo, Fragonard and Boucher, with details of an Orient they never visited. But it was Istanbul that inspired him the most. After the painting Dame de Constantinople was exhibited at the show La Turquerie au XVIIIe siecle in 1911, the critic Léandre Vaillat wrote that Liotard was amused by :les petites Chypriotes, les femmes de Chio”, adding, however, that “celles de Constantinople l’ont viviblement séduit.

On his return to the West, Liotard spent time in Vienna, where he continued to wear Turkish costume and a long silvery Moldavian beard.

As a portraitist he worked in Vienna, London and Amsterdam, where he married at the age of fifty-eight; he settled finally in Geneva with his five children.

His portraits, described by Horace Walpole as “too like to please”, influenced several of his English contemporaries. Liotard was an obsessive realist. In 1781 he wrote: “It is in drawing frequently and faithfully from nature that one can bring a picture to its highest degree of perfection.”

The exhibition is curated by Anne de Herdt, keeper of the department of drawings at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva. For the first time it brings together some 150 works from public collections in Geneva, Vienna, London and Amsterdam, as well as many from private collections.

An exhibition of one of the finest pastelists of the eighteenth century is all the more remarkable today given the difficulties of safely displaying and transporting pastels, in which the colour is fine dust that barely binds to the paper.

A beautifully produced catalogue was published for the exhibition (1992) by the Louvre and the Museum of Art and History in Geneva.

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