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Monday, December 15, 2014

Jean-Étienne Liotard

Liotard, Landscape with cows, sheep and shepherdess, 1761, Jean-Etienne Liotard.

Jean-Étienne Liotard Self-portrait, 1773
I've long claimed that the greatest compliment one can pay an artist is to say, he or she is quite versatile. There are perhaps a dozen or so major content areas which would encompass most art. A truly versatile artist should be able to paint competantly in any and all of these areas. Bot only that, but paint it in virtually any style, using virtually any painting medium. (Better still, any sculptural medium, as well.) In today's Postmodern art, the line separating one medium from another, one content area from another, even one style from another, is growing fuzzier and fuzzier every day. Painting only special content might be appropriate for a large city, but it would be foolish now or then in a rural setting. The French portrait artist, Jean-Etienne Liotard is one of the few painters of his time who could claim such a distinction as to versatility

Still Life Tea Set, 1781-83, Jean Etienne Liotard (dirty dishes).
Apollo and Daphne, 1736,
Jean-Etienne Liotard (after Bernini)
Dating as far back as Leonardo and the Renaissance, right up through Warhol and the Pop Era, as well as today, portrait painters have always tended to be among the most versatile of all artists. Jean-Etienne Liotard was a portrait painter; and having become a master at what should be consider the most difficult of all content areas, he was perfectly suited to paint over a broad spectrum of content areas from farm livestock landscapes (top) and high tea still-lifes (above) to classical subjects, genre, children (below, right), and of course, portraits of the high and mighty, rich and famous of his time. Liotard's Apollo and Daphne (left) from 1736, gives evidence of the artist's mastery of Greek mythology, though compositionally based upon the most popular embodiment of the couple, Bernini's Baroque masterpiece, completed just over a hundred years earlier.

Madame Levettand and Mlle Glavani in Turkish Costume, Jean-Etienne Liotard
Young Girls Singing into a mirror,
Jean-Etienne Liotard
Jean-Etienne Liotard was born in 1702, the son of a Geneva jeweler. He began his art studies under Professors Gardelle and Petitot learning to paint miniatures in enamel (an exquisite art demanding extreme patience and skill). In 1725, Liotard move on to Paris and later Naples to continue his studies. By 1735, he was in Rome painting portraits of cardinals and Pope Clement XII. From there he visited Constantinople "painting" in pastels Turkish officials and genre scenes. Liotard even adopted Turkish apparel which he often continued to wear even after returning to Paris around 1736. Doing so was considered what we'd term "chic" today, to the point many of his important portrait subjects (above) chose to be painted in mid-eastern costumes which he supplied.

The Chocolate Girl, 1744-45,
Jean-Etienne Liotard
Lady Ponsonby in Venetian Costume,
1742-43, Jean-Etienne Liotard
Then, as now, a portrait artist's "bread and butter" revolves around wealthy society figures (mostly women), their remarkable hairdos, richly detailed dresses, and youthful appearance. Liotard was good at meeting all thses expectations and demands. But he also found fascinating the lower levels of French society, the serving classes and those who could no more afford his fees than fly. But they were quite willing, even flattered, to pose for free or a small fee in order to be painted by the same artist who rendered the visages of their employers.

Marthe-Marie Tronchin, 1758-61,
Jean-Etienne Liotard
Portrait of a Young Woman,
1761, Jean-Etienne Liotard
Liotard's work is rich in detail, human nature, and even humor. Moreover he was quite prolific for a portrait painter of the 18th-century as academic profectionism was starting to take hold of the French art world. Besides Italy and Istambul, Liotard traveled broadly with trips to London, Vienna, and Amsterdam where he painted portraits of royalty and royal wanabees in both pastels and oils. He also was an expert engraver, even mastering the art of painting on glass (from the back). Of course high society women and the men who paid Liotard for their wives' portraits were pretty conservative, conventional, continental sorts. It's only when we look beneath the surface, digging out works such as his Portrait of a Young Woman (above, left) from 1761, or his gracefully aged portrait of Marthe-Marie Tronchin, (above, right) from 1758-61, that we come to realize why his work, quite apart from his portraits, has come to be so respected over two-hundred years after his death in 1789 at the age of eighty-seven.

Portrait of François Tronchin with his painting by Rembrandt, 1757, Jean Etienne Liotard. 
The portrait (above, right) is of Madame Tronchin, his wife.
The Rembrandt dates from 1645 and is titled, Woman in Bed (Bride of Tobias).


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