Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Jean-Étienne Liotard @ Scottish National Gallery

Although now largely unknown in Britain, Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-89) was a much-celebrated figure in the age of Mozart and Casanova. An adventurous traveller, who was hugely skilled both as an artist and as a self-publicist, Liotard enjoyed a long and prolific career working in the major cities and courts of Europe. 

He is most renowned for his work in pastel, a delicate medium in which he achieved astonishing levels of detail, and for the compelling, uncompromising honesty of his portraits. This exhibition of some 50 works from private and public collections around the world – the first major celebration in the UK of Liotard’s work – will also include examples of the artist’s finest drawings, oil paintings, enamels, miniatures and prints, revealing the full range of his remarkable achievement.

Liotard was born in the republic of Geneva and journeyed all across Europe, visiting and working in many cities, including Amsterdam, The Hague, Venice, Rome and Naples. He also spent four years in Constantinople, an experience that inspired his subsequent adoption of strikingly unusual dress, inspired by his experience of the Near East, which became as much a focus of curiosity as his portraits.

Liotard’s knowledge of exotic subjects certainly furthered his career at the courts of Vienna, Paris and London. He depicted the families of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, King Louis XV of France and Augusta, Princess of Wales, as well as subjects from the exiled Jacobite court in Rome. Although he was born in a republic – a background which might seem to prevent him finding favour with such significant royal patrons – his skills, charm and the novelty of his work transcended such concerns.

Liotard’s court art was of a very particular type; in an age of magnificence, when portraiture was usually used to be public and propagandist, the artist offered an altogether more intimate and quiet service, creating small works of radical honesty, sometimes stripped of any of the trappings or attributes of state. Among the highlights of the exhibition will be the artist's mesmerising portraits of the teen-aged George, Prince of Wales (the future King George III) and his young sister Princes Louisa Anne, both made in 1754.

The artist described himself as a ‘Citizen of Geneva’ and depicted the bourgeoisie of his home city with honesty and grace, chiefly in the 1750s. In Britain his clientele included aristocrats, actors, young travellers undertaking the traditional ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, and men and women of fashion. In portraits such as Eva Marie Garrick (wife of the celebrated actor David Garrick, whom he was also commissioned to portray) Liotard combined compelling likenesses with an obsessive interest in details of clothes, recording with astonishing veracity details of fur, silk and lace. In such works the artist took the art of using pastels – sticks of pigments bound in gum – to new heights and created brilliant illusionistic effects.

Liotard travelled to Constantinople in 1738 with two British Grand Tourists, whom he had met in a coffee house in Rome. He stayed for about four years, securing commissions from the British Ambassador, Sir Everard Fawkener, and other residents in the city. He largely confined his studies to a langorous world of interiors, where figures recline on divans, and portraits of diplomats and merchants in oil and chalk, which meticulously pinpoint the intriguing and complex interaction between west and east through dress, furnishings and customs. 

When Liotard arrived in Britain he was heralded as ‘The Turk’ as he had widely distributed engravings based on drawings made in Constantinople.

Throughout his life Liotard depicted his own features in a wide range of media, employing oil paint, enamel and various print making techniques. The results are some of the most candid and intriguing self-portraits of the eighteenth century. They document his ageing, but also allowed him to develop and refine the exotic, eastern image he promoted, especially through flamboyant dress, following his visit to Constantinople.

The artist also made portraits of family members which provide a delightfully intimate insight into his immediate circle. He married Marie Fargues, the daughter of a French merchant, in 1756, and depicted her and their five children on numerous occasions, particularly creating remarkably accomplished pastel studies, such as Marie-Anne Francoise Liotard with a Doll (c.1774).

Towards the latter part of his long career Liotard began to explore new subject matter – still life and genre (or everyday) subjects. In works such as Trompe l'oeil with Two Bas-reliefs and Two Drawings (1771) he excelled at replicating in astonishing detail the appearance of the objects before him, taking inspiration from French and Dutch art, but also achieving a wholly original synthesis. He also enjoyed success as an art dealer and sought to create a legacy through writing a treatise on art.

The exhibition in Edinburgh features some 50 works by Liotard from distinguished private and public collections, which include the Royal Collection, The Frick Collection, New York, the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva, the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, and collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth.

Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, commented on the exhibition: “Liotard is perhaps one of the greatest artists that most people have never heard of. Travelling as widely as he did, he has never been easy to categorise and link with a particular national ‘school’. He has in many respects also become invisible because many of his finest portraits remain in private collections. However, his glorious, quirky and wonderfully delicate work will appeal to anyone interested in eighteenth-century society, fashion, sophisticated techniques and the fascination that Europeans have long had with exotic themes. He so richly deserves to be put back on the art historical map.”

The exhibition is a collaboration with the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where it will be shown 24 October 2015 – 31 January 2016.

It has been co-curated by the independent scholars Mary Anne Stevens and William Hauptman and for the National Galleries of Scotland by Christopher Baker.

A major scholarly catalogue is being published by the Royal Academy of Arts to accompany the exhibition; it features contributions from Christopher Baker, Neil Jeffares, Aileen Ribeiro, William Hauptman, Duncan Bull, Marc Fehlmann and MaryAnne Stevens [£35.00].

In Edinburgh the exhibition has been made possible thanks to the generous support of The Friends of the National Galleries of Scotland.

A rich complementary programme of lectures, films and events has been devised to contextualise the exhibition.

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