Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 25, 2006
Claire Stoullig and Félicité Isabelle Bleeke Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789): Swiss Master Trans. Charles Penwarden and Toby Alleyne-Gee; intro. Anne Poulet. Paris: Somogy Éditions d’Art, 2006. 119 pp.; many color ills. Cloth
The Frick Collection, New York, NY, June 13–September 17, 2006
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Jean-Étienne Liotard. Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria (1746-1804). 1762. Red and black chalk, graphite pencil, and watercolor on very thin white laid paper, heightened with color on the verso. 31.8 x 25.7 cm (12 1/2 x 10 1/8 in.). Musées d’art et d’histoire, Cabinet des Dessins. Photo: Bettina Jacot-Descombes.

Amid the symphonic blockbusters regularly staged in the large museums of New York City, the special exhibitions mounted at the Frick Collection in three quiet, elegant rooms on the lower level of the museum offer visitors a welcome dose of chamber music. Striking in this regard was the summertime exhibition of works by the eighteenth-century Genevan artist Jean-Étienne Liotard, whose spare but penetrating portraits, character studies, and still lifes filled the Frick’s small space with a Mozartian blend of lightness and piercing exactitude. Liotard is perhaps best known today for his pastel figures redolent of genre painting, such as La Belle Chocolatière (ca. 1745; Dresden, Gemäldegalerie), but the exhibition at the Frick demonstrated his breadth as an artist, both in subject and in medium. His portraits ranged in scale from miniature busts to full-length figures posed in interior settings, and they were rendered in almost every two-dimensional medium that was possible for an eighteenth-century artist to use—watercolor on vellum and ivory; oil on canvas; chalk; pastel; and engraving, etching, and mezzotint printed both on paper and, in one amazing case, on satin. The sitters likewise extended across a broad social scale, from Liotard’s own middle-class family and friends to European royalty. Like a number of eighteenth-century artists, Liotard at times blurred the boundaries between his portraits and his character studies, using family members to stage small actions of everyday life, and giving his anonymous characters the dignity and precision of portraiture. One such group among the latter featured men and women Liotard presumably encountered during his extensive sojourns in Eastern Europe, primarily Turkey and Moldavia. Portraiture and character study intertwined most intriguingly in the exhibition’s impressive display of Liotard’s self-portraits, for which the Genevan artist posed in the overtly foreign clothes and hairstyles he chose to wear after his return to western Europe: a flowing Turkish robe in red or blue; a fez-like red cap, his own hair falling in wispy abandon to his shoulders; and sometimes a long, full beard recalling those worn by men in the Moldavian court. These works, which characteristically displayed a range of scale, medium, and stages in the artist’s life, encouraged a viewer to consider in depth Liotard’s unique artistic persona.

The exhibition, organized and installed by Colin Bailey with the assistance of Kristel Smentek, was among the best the Frick has ever presented in the thoughtful arrangement of the works, the varied and informative wall texts, and the opportunities provided for viewers to gain technical understanding of the artist’s working process. Each of the two main rooms of the exhibition space was anchored by a key series of pieces ranged along the far wall or walls: the self-portraits in one room, and in the other room Liotard’s extraordinary chalk portraits of eleven of the twelve children of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Smaller series, such as the Turkish characters, were grouped so as to form coherent ensembles that helped a visitor grasp the various dimensions of Liotard’s extensive oeuvre. Works of the same subject executed in different mediums appeared side by side to show how Liotard advanced from a chalk drawing to a finished pastel or oil, or—in the case of the self-portraits—how he experimented with different ways of presenting a single head study and gesture through variations in scale, medium, and tonality. In his drawings depicting the young Austrian archdukes and archduchesses, Liotard intensified facial contours, clothing, and hair by heightening these areas with color on the verso of the sheets. A visual example of this unusual process, which Liotard adapted from techniques of miniature painting, is featured in the exhibition together with a lucid explanation of its purpose and effects.

The exhibition highlighted a number of intriguing features of Liotard’s work that deserve further study. The most obvious concerns the artist’s extraordinary technique. The superfine detail and precision of Liotard’s execution, as well as a certain stillness and isolation of his figures, seem at times more characteristic of a Renaissance master such as Jean Clouet than of eighteenth-century artists, such as Chardin and Perronneau, whose formats he sometimes emulated. Probably deriving in part from his original training as a miniaturist, Liotard’s clean and scrupulous approach clearly appealed to his international portrait clientele, and in retrospect we can see that it also heralded a much broader turn toward formal clarity in eighteenth-century European art that would culminate in Neoclassicism. Liotard himself would promote precise definition as a kind of doctrine in the treatise on painting that he published late in his life (Jean-Étienne Liotard, Traité des principes et des règles de la peinture, Geneva, 1781). But even more eloquent are Liotard’s portrait subjects, whose precise hand gestures and piercing gazes mirror the artist’s own probity and clarity of execution. This was nowhere more evident in the exhibition at the Frick than in the portraits of the Austrian royal children, all of whom direct their crystalline blue eyes toward some clear point while executing a distinctive gesture. The young archduchesses, especially, caught in the act of stitching, writing, drawing, adorning themselves, or gracefully balancing a book in hand, show through the very neatness and clarity with which they wield their chosen object how compelling precise handling can be. The Archduchess Maria Amalia, for example, carefully positions her fingers to perform a stitch of embroidery, her confident gestures playing like a spring against the vice that holds the frame of her work. Such works could profitably be studied in conjunction with Liotard’s scrupulous still lifes, a couple of examples of which appeared in the exhibition, including the Frick Collection’s own tiny but assertive Trompe l’Oeil (1771).

Matching Liotard’s formal subtleties are his attentive characterizations, a quality that emerged in the exhibition not just in the portraits, but also, somewhat unexpectedly, in his “exotic” subjects. Often as sharply rendered as his portraits, these self-contained figures project little of the fanciful stylization of eighteenth-century turquerie, despite their anonymity and foreign attire. Liotard’s self-portraits in fez, robe, and (sometimes) beard warrant particular attention in this regard; although they recall the costumed self-portraits of Rembrandt, an artist Liotard admired, they are also far more realistic as “performances” in that they depict the artist’s actual, day-to-day personal style. Rembrandt’s theater here becomes Liotard’s surprising exactitude.

In contrast to the lucidity of the exhibition, the book published in conjunction with it is a somewhat puzzling affair. The text was originally published in French and served as an exhibition catalogue—not for the 2006 show at the Frick but for an exhibition of Liotard’s works presented in 2002 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva. Since the Frick exhibition featured many works borrowed from the Musée d’art et d’histoire, there is considerable overlap between the two shows; but the Frick featured a number of works borrowed from private collections which did not form part of the earlier Geneva exhibition. To fill this gap a partially illustrated checklist of the exhibition at the Frick has been appended to the original text of the book, now translated into English. The result for a visitor to the Frick Collection exhibition is a patchwork; some of the works illustrated in the catalogue and discussed in the essays appeared in the Frick exhibition, but others did not, while certain key works exhibited at the Frick make little or no appearance in the main text of the catalogue.

The original Geneva publication, moreover, was authored by six different scholars pursuing rather different lines of approach, and little effort appears to have been made to integrate these distinct writings into a coherent whole. The opening essays leap from Marcel Roethlisberger’s wide-ranging, highly personal overview of Liotard’s career to Claire Stoullig’s detailed account of how the museums of Geneva came to form their collections of his works, to Isabelle Félicité Bleeker’s excellent consideration of Liotard’s artistry in the use of pastel, to an essay by Fabienne Xavière Sturm on Liotard’s miniatures that mixes technical descriptions with fragments of biography and collecting history. The ensuing catalogue of works, while generally more consistent in format and approach, contains an odd disjunction between the introductory essays and the individual catalogue entries. While the essays address artistic and thematic aspects of the works, the entries focus almost exclusively upon provenance. While knowing the precise collection history of each work is certainly important to curators, its relevance to a general scholarly readership is less evident, especially given the many intriguing questions that Liotard’s works raise as to his artistic goals and strategies. The one exception to this pattern appears in the entries on the portraits of the Austrian children, which feature concise but compelling accounts of the life each child would lead, as well as perceptive notes on Liotard’s portraiture. The anomaly of these entries is explained by the fact that they were taken directly from an exhibition catalogue by Anne de Herdt published in 1992; although the current catalogue notes this fact, de Herdt’s publication was, oddly, omitted from the bibliography. A final essay by Cäsar Menz on Liotard’s still lifes was also reprinted in translation from an earlier publication. Menz’s thoughtful considerations of selected works was somewhat easier to follow than the essays written specifically for the catalogue, in part because the editors included page references to reproductions of the works under discussion, a helpful reader’s guide that the other essays lacked.

The Frick Collection has, nevertheless, rendered scholars a great service in providing a much-needed monograph on Liotard in English. Given the uneven quality of this book, its greatest accomplishment might be to encourage further research and writing on Liotard’s innovative style, pictorial experimentation, and unusual characterizations. Anyone lucky enough to have visited the finely tuned exhibition in New York would need no extra prodding to take up this task.

Sarah R. Cohen
Departments of Art and Art History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University at Albany, State University of New York

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.