In 1735 a young and listless Jean Etienne Liotard left his studies in Paris, packed up his things, and headed out for an adventure. It was in Italy that the French-Swiss artist met three wealthy British travellers, Sir William Ponsonby, John Montagu and Viscount Ducannon, who were on a Grand Tour of sorts, and bound for Constantinople. The aristocrats desired mementoes of the travels, and so invited Liotard along, to draw the costumes and characters they met along the way. Liotard became to the trio what Instagram is for gap-years.
So began court painter Jean Etienne Liotard’s well-documented obsession with the East, which whetted the French appetite for Orientalist art, making room for Delacroix’s Eastern scenes a century later. Liotard’s taste for exoticism went for beyond his work, though: he wore Turkish robes throughout his life, grew a waist-length beard, and painted all of his sitters in Middle-Eastern dress. These wacky paintings are the most immediately most striking in the Royal Academy’s 2015 exhibition. A life-size Richard Pocock gazes out over a Levantine harbour, sporting an enormous turban and robes which the wind catches. Princess Princess Marie Adélaïde of France reclines on a couch in Turkish dress; her feet bare. The only Western part of the entire composition is the book she is reading, which is French. Liotard himself laughs out from under a fez in his unsettling self potrait of 1770. In another from 1749, the artist’s magnificent beard tumbles down to his waist.
And yet, there is so much more to this exhibition than eccentricity, or that fact that the paintings were rendered in pastel, Liotard’s chosen medium. The artist possessed a rare, rare artisitic talent. Just look at the portrait of the famour ne’er-do-well Simon Luttrell, or ‘The King of Hell’, as he was known (Google him- he’s quite the character). You are struck, first of all, by his exotic costume. But as you look, you become mesmerized by the textures in the painting: the the linen creases of the turban the fur that you want to reach out and touch, the silken shirt, straining slightly over his paunch. This is a remarkable painting.
A five year old Princess Louisa Anne is genius; she is a thing of beautiful purity, but also of vulnerability. She was a sickly child, and the artist suggests this in her pallor, with her haunted eyes, wet lip, startled expression and too-big dress which exposes her undeveloped form. The picture is so immediate that you want to reach out and comfort her.
Liotard is perhaps most famous praised his still-lives and genre paintings, which are reserved for the last room; La Chocolatiere, the Tea Set on a lacquer tray, The Dutch Girl at Breakfast. These are indeed stokes of brilliance; his technique is so perfect that the scenes appear three-dimensional. These feel slightly like showcases of his ability, though, rather than works of real sympathy and vitality. Nevertheless, they're astounding.
The French art connoisseur Pierre-Jean Mariette, wrote dismissively that Liotard’s success rested entirely on the spectacle he made of himself: “(it is) the novelty of the spectacle (that) affords him attention, facilitates his access to Versailles and secures him commissions and plenty of money."
The truth of the matter, is that his eccentricity got in the way of his talent. What a wonderful exhibition.
|What||Jean-Etienne Liotard, Royal Academy|
|Where||Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Green Park (underground)|
24 Oct 15 – 31 Jan 16, Monday - Friday 10am - 6pm, Friday late opening till 10pm
|Price||£11.50 (without donation £10). Concessions available|
|Website||Click here for more details|