06 August 2016

Jean Etienne Liotard - early Orientalist artist in pastels

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789)’s parents were French Huguenots who fled to the independent Protestant city state of Geneva. Thus the lad was born in Geneva, did some of his training there and later finished his training in Paris.

He first joined some very Grand Tourists in Italy such as Viscount Duncannon and the Earl of Sandwich and accompanied them to the Levant. He spent 4 amazing years in Constantinople (1738-42), absorbing the visual pleasures of the exotic East. "The Turk", as he called himself, only adopted his Oriental costume and beard in Constantin­ople, where he painted ex­patriate residents and scenes of everyday life in the Ott­oman Empire. Then he continued being The Turk wherever he travelled across Europe. The exactness of his eastern costumes in his portraits pres­um­ably recorded what both Turkish citizens wore, and what members of the Western merchant community wore while they lived amongst the locals.

His portrayal of life in the Ottoman Empire in the mid C18th, and of his fashionable European sitters in Turkish attire, in some way inspired the C19th taste for Orien­talism. In his day he was one of Europe’s most sought-after portrait­ists, worth high prices and a loyal, international clientele. From delicate lace and silks to exotic turbans and furs, Liotard’s depictions of textiles showed his impressive command of textiles, decorative details and a sense of fashion.

Laura Tarsi as a Grecian Lady, 1741, 
10 x 8 cm. 
Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitz­william said that little was known about Laura Tarsi in this exquisite miniature, beyond her name and nationality. Its provenance led to the supposition that she was the mistress of John Manners, Marquess of Granby (1721-1770) when both were living in Constant­inople in the early 1740s. And note that Liotard also painted three other versions of the portrait of the lovely Laura.

Then Liotard and his aristocratic patrons went to the courts of Moldavia/Romania, Vienna, Germany, Paris for 7 more years, then Britain, Holland and on through central Europe. Wherever he went, he enjoyed considerable success, exploiting his potent reput­ation as an Orientalist painter. It is worth noting that throughout his long career, his major British aristocratic patrons continued to commission portraits from him, wherever in Europe the artist was calling home at the time. And the love affair lasted - Hon William Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon, became one of his greatest patrons and single handedly bought 72 Liotards! 

Liotard was an artist in great demand across Enlightenment Europe and beyond, including when he was specifically commissioned to paint portraits of members of the British, French and Austrian royal fam­ilies. No wonder! His distinctive portraits conjured up the magnif­icence and cultural curiosity of that very royal age.

He was one of the most accomplished portraitists of his day, trav­el­ling and working on beautifully crafted portraits, mostly pastels on parchment. But why pastels? Yes they were applied in an open, painterly way, using up to 90% pigment for brilliant colours. But Liotard’s portraits were much more finely crafted, highly polished and exquisitely detailed than other artists’ portraits were. We can see that he originally trained as a miniaturist! Using very finely sharped hard pastel chalks pastels alongside softer and broader pastel sticks, historians suggested he gave a real sense of liveliness to his sitters, especially around their eyes.
Self Portrait, 1744, 
38 x 25 cm
Uffizi Gallery Florence.

When he arrived in London, the artist was still styling himself as le Peintre Turc, walking around town with a long beard and Turkish dress.

His treat­ment of materials was very special: the viewer can readily distinguish between fur, satin, velvet, lace and covered buttons. Naturally many of his sitters chose to be depicted in very exotic costumes with very lush materials. Laura Tarsi's outfit was typical of the layered look and richly embroidered fabrics that enjoyed such a vogue among fashionable Europeans.

His wide range of subjects, both geographically and socially, was also impressive. Sober Genevan citizens, English Grand Tourists, exiled Jacobites, diplomats, princes and progressive thinkers all admired his skills.

The Scottish National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts in London each completed a major Liotard exhibition in 2015-16. Both exhibitions showed that Liotard was loved for his subject matter – especially the works he produced during his time in Constantinople in 1738. A highlight was a wonderful group of drawings in red and black chalk that depicted scenes of contemporary Turkish life. These works were important as records AND because they influenced the West’s increasing taste for the Orient.

The exhibitions followed his travels, taking us from Liotard’s self-portraits and portraits of his family, to portraits of his British and continental patrons, both courtly and aristocratic.

These were the first retrospective exhibitions in the UK to be devoted to Liotard, bringing together over 70 rarely-seen works. Covering the artist’s time in Paris, Vienna, Geneva, Constantinople and London, they were a long-overdue celebration of an artist the students and I found accidentally and really enjoyed.
Royal Academy of Arts Exhibition poster, 
 Liotard, Maria Adelaide Reading, 1753 
Uffizi Gallery Florence 

I warmly recommend the exhibition catalogue which presented important new research on the artist by the 3 curators. And I am very grateful to Neil Jeffares for his in-depth search in publishing Dictionary of Pastellists Before 1800


Andrew said...

I thought he may have been too busy with his attire and work to bother marrying, but he did marry at the age of 54.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Liotard was a perfect painter for the Orientalist movement, in which exoticism and lush detail was paramount. Yet I also like the strength of character which shows through in his portrayal of Laura Tarsi, above her impressive and colorful raiment.

Deb said...

From lectures, I thought Delacroix was the first Orientalist artist with influence. Even Delacroix was a bit too early.

Hels said...


Here is a serious question. If a woman wanted to marry a man who was always travelling, did she expect to a] travel with him to every country he worked in, perhaps having her babies in steamy jungles or frozen tundra? b] stay at home alone and see the spouse perhaps every year or two? or c] remain single? I also wonder what happened to the wives of travelling clerics, soldiers and career diplomats?

Liotard had to travel around Europe at the behest of his aristocratic and royal patrons, which seemed to be something the artist enjoyed doing anyhow. The only downside, as you say, was that by the time he wanted to marry, he had to find a MUCH younger woman and hope that he lived long enough to enjoy their babies.

Hels said...


pastels had been used occasionally before, but it didn't become a very popular medium until the early 18th century. I am thinking of the lustrous velvety tones of portraitists like Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757) and Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788). Even John Russell (1745–1806) received heaps of royal and aristocratic commissions for his lush details.

Perfect timing for Liotard's working years and a perfect medium for an exotic genre like Orientalist portraits.

Hels said...


Quite right! The lives of Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) did not even overlap!! Yet we always read that it was the latter whose visit to North Africa in 1832 inspired his own view of the exotic Orient and the views of the many artists who followed.

I think historians need to be a little less definitive - even if Liotard's fame faded after his death. It is beyond doubt, for example, that General Napoleon Bonaparte and his men occupied Egypt from 1798-1801, covering France with Egyptian taste on their return.

Hels said...

Look what I found in the blog edited by Bendor Grosvenor:

The Rijksmuseum has successfully acquired and exported from the UK a fine painting by Liotard, called 'A Dutch Girl at Breakfast'. The Rijksmuseum bought the painting at Sotheby's earlier this year for £4.4m, and then had an anxious wait while the picture went through the usual export licence processes. That has now been completed and the Rijksmuseum has now been able to announce its new acquisition. The bidding was brave and deft stuff for a museum these days - so kudos and congratulations to all involved.

The picture was recently on show in the UK during the Royal Academy's Liotard exhibition.

Art History News

Joseph said...

Liotard was strongly influenced by the Dutch artists of the 17th century. Even before his sojourn in Holland, his portraits were unusually restrained and naturalistic at a time when the fashion was for very stylized portraits with contrived poses, symbolic gestures and accoutrements conveying the wealth, power, profession and/or abilities of the subject. The intimate spaces, plain painted walls, varied textures and scenes from daily life captured in the works of Jan van Huysum, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and Johannes Vermeer inspired Liotard. With "A Dutch Girl at Breakfast, Liotard became one of the first non-Dutch 18th century artists to create an explicit homage to the Golden Age masters.

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