The first Orientalist, Liotard was also the most truthful and subtle. Tim Cornwell marvels at his work on show in London
The 18th-century Swiss portrait artist Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789) is widely regarded as the first Orientalist. The four years he spent in Turkey from 1738, drawing and painting Western merchants and diplomats as well as Ottoman citizens, made him the first serious European artist to find his subject matter in the East.
His portrait of a grand vizier, Ali Pasha (1689–1758), a son of the sultan’s Venetian doctor, is in the collection of the National Gallery in London. Other courtly subjects included Augusta, the Dowager Princess of Wales, her late husband, Frederick, and their children; Bonnie Prince Charlie, who would later lay claim to the British throne; and the families of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa and King Louis XV of France.
On his return to Europe, Liotard was quick to cash in on Eastern exoticism. Dubbing himself “le Peintre Turc”, he dressed in Ottoman costume, with a waist-length beard, creating a flamboyant public persona to build up his clientele.
Liotard’s fame has long receded, mainly because his works were often in delicate pastels, portraits designed to hang in private family quarters rather than grand settings. But two major exhibitions this year were designed to redress the balance: the first was at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. It can now be seen, in much-expanded form, at the Royal Academy.
The exhibitions’ aim has been “to introduce an artist who was very distinguished in the 18th century and had an international career, but has been seemingly forgotten, to a wide audience”, says the curator MaryAnne Stevens – something of a legend herself for staging 70 shows at the Royal Academy in a storied 35-year career.
For the nosy art historian, there are two curiosities. The first has been the conservation challenge of transporting nearly 40 fragile pastel works, loaned from across Europe. (Two pastel works offered from Qatar’s Orientalist collection, and others in the US, were ruled out mostly because of a “no-fly” rule.) Second, the exhibition has revived the question of what work may have been lost – and why – from Liotard’s four years in Ottoman lands, mostly in Constantinople.
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