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Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789): Swiss Master

A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin

About the show:

One of Art History's best kept secrets until recently, but not so during the Rococo age, was Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789). The name of the well-traveled Swiss painter, miniaturist, draftsman and engraver was a popular one in many a royal and aristocratic household from London to Constantinople to Vienna in the Eighteenth Century. Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789): Swiss Master, a dossier exhibition at New York's Frick Collection from June 13 to September 17, 2006, has done much to revive the itinerant artist's international reputation. More than 50 of his drawings, engravings, miniatures, paintings and pastels from Geneva's Musées d'art et d'histoire, joined by a select number of works from Swiss private collections, are exclusively on display in Manhattan.

Late sixteenth-century France was embroiled in the Wars of Religion (1562-1598), a period rife with seething dynastic intrigues and civil unrest between the Catholic majority and Protestant minority. King Henri IV (r. 1594-1610) settled the various religious and military conflicts by the Edict of Nantes (1598). This act of toleration, decidedly in favor of the Catholics, was at best a superficial solution to France's decades of internecine battles. While the decree reinstated the "heretical" Protestants' civil rights, their freedom of worship was restricted to specific regions outside city walls. Furthermore, the Huguenots were not exempt from paying the tithe or "la dîme" (a tax of one-tenth of a person's agricultural production to support France's Catholic institutions, often distant from one's local parish). In October 1685, King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) repealed the edict promulgated by his devilishly assassinated grandfather. This revocation caused many Huguenots to flee the renewed threat of persecution and relocate to England, the Dutch Republic, Germany and Switzerland. Liotard's parents left France shortly after Louis' Edict of Fontainebleau outlawed Protestantism. They settled in Geneva, where their son was born in 1702.

Liotard's formal training as an artist began with Daniel Gardelle (1673-1753), an accomplished Genevan painter of miniatures. Once completed, he moved to Paris and served as an apprentice to Jean-Baptiste Massé (1687-1767), a talented miniaturist, portraitist and printmaker. Having completed a number of commissions beginning in 1726, Liotard failed to be accepted by France's Royal Academy in 1735. This disheartening event hastened his next trip abroad to Naples, accompanied by the French ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Liotard's Italian travels eventually led him to Rome, where he painted a portrait of Pope Clement XII (r. 1730-1740), recorded but now lost. While there, he experimented with pastels.

In 1997, the Frick Collection acquired Liotard's Trompe l'Oeil (1771), completed late in his life. The artist described it then as a deceptio visus (visual deception). In his illusionistic painting, two plaster sculptural fragments depicting scenes from classical antiquity are suspended by screws to a faux wooden board. Beneath them are a pair of drawings, seemingly affixed by wax. Liotard's conviction that the educated artist be able to replicate the natural world realistically in painting is clear in this masterpiece.

Image © The Frick Collection; Used with permission
Jean-Étienne Liotard (Swiss, 1702-1789)
Trompe l'Oeil, 1771
Oil on silk transferred to canvas
23.3 x 32.3 cm (9 3/4 x 12 3/4 in.)
Bequest of Lore Heinemann in memory of
her husband, Dr. Rudolph J. Heinemann, 1977
© The Frick Collection
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

While in Rome, Liotard met the British Earls of Sandwich and Bessborough. This chance encounter resulted in a trip to the Greek isles and Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. While there, the artist studiously observed the Turkish people and eventually adopted their exotic mode of dress, earning him the title "le peintre Turc" ("the Turkish painter"). Unfashionable by Western European standards of the Eighteenth Century, Liotard grew a long beard that he refused to shave until he married Marie Fargues in 1756. His unusual appearance caused quite a stir upon his arrival in Vienna in 1743, where Maria Theresa (r. 1749-1780), the Austrian empress, commissioned him to produce portraits of her dozen children.

The exhibition's first gallery is largely devoted to Liotard's sensitive studies of the ruler's progeny, the most striking of which is The Archduchess Marie-Antoinette of Austria (1755-1793) (1762). With an exacting use of pencil and modicum of color, Liotard's fine lines sharply define both the facial features of the seven-year-old ill-fated future queen of France and the crisp ribbons of her pink bodice. The princess is seated in three-quarter profile, her head decidedly turned forward. Her stare engages the viewer in what may have been a deliberate acknowledgment of an abrupt interruption of the session between artist and sitter, a glance that Liotard perfectly captured in his work on paper.

Image © Musées d'art et d'histoire, Geneva; Used with permission of The Frick Collection
Jean-Étienne Liotard (Swiss, 1702-1789)
The Archduchess Marie-Antoinette of Austria
, 1792
Black chalk, graphite pencil, watercolor and
pastel on very thin white laid paper, heightened
with color on the verso
© Musées d'art et d'histoire, Geneva

Liotard returned to Paris in 1748 after further travels to Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Despite academic animosity, he created unrelentingly realistic portraits of the French royalty and court that rivaled the unflattering compositions of Spanish painter Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660) a century earlier. They earned Liotard the disfavour of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), the mistress of France's King Louis XV (r. 1715-1774). The accomplished artist eventually returned to Geneva. His most insightful painting, Liotard Laughing (ca. 1770), hangs centrally on the far wall of the exhibition's second gallery. Gap-toothed and lively in old age, this remarkable self-portrait captures both the features and wit of the erudite artist. Liotard's mischievous grin in front of a drawn green curtain encourages the viewer to laugh along with him, perhaps at the foibles and exigencies of eighteenth-century Rococo society that he witnessed firsthand.

After journeys to London (1774), Vienna (1777) and Lyons (1781), Liotard retired to Geneva or its outskirts. His published Treatise on the Principles and Rules of Painting (1781) recommended that there is no place for visible brushstrokes in the realistic representation of nature in painting. Liotard died in 1789, ironically the same year that one of his most prominent sitters, Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, became embroiled in the throes of the French Revolution, its republican elements having eventually claimed her head.

Image © Musées d'art et d'histoire, Geneva; Used with permission of The Frick Collection
Jean-Étienne Liotard (Swiss, 1702-1789)
Liotard Laughing (Liotard riant), ca. 1770
Oil on canvas
84 x 74 cm (33 1/16 x 29 1/8 in.)
© Musées d'art et d'histoire, Geneva
Photograph by Bettina Jacot-Descombes

About the catalogue:

Bleeker, Isabelle Félicité, Cäsar Menz, et al.
Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789): Masterpieces
from the Musées d'Art et d'Histoire of Geneva and
Swiss Private Collections
(exh. cat).
Paris: Somogy Éditions d'Art, 2006.

The exhibition's 119-page color-illustrated hardcover catalogue includes concise essays and related works not in the show.

"Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789): Swiss Master" is on view from June 13 through September 17, 2006 at The Frick Collection, 1 East 70 Street, New York, NY 10021-4967 (Telephone: 212-288-0700; Website ). The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and Sunday from 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Admission is $15.00 for adults, $10.00 for senior citizens (62 years of age and over), $5.00 for students and pay as you wish on Sunday from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM , which includes the ArtPhone recorded tour of the museum. Children ages 10 to 15 years of age must be accompanied by an adult.


From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.

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