Born in Switzerland in 1702 and trained in Paris, Liotard made his name painting portraits of the Pope, his cardinals and various European notables in Paris, Vienna and London, including Voltaire, Rousseau and Queen Marie-Antoinette. After travelling through the Mediterranean, he settled for a while in Constantinople and took to dressing his sitters in Turkish costume, men and women alike with magnificent turbans and heavy brocaded frockcoats.
Liotard's small pastel drawings, watercolours, enamels and miniatures are renowned for their grace and delicacy. He treated all his subjects, noble and bourgeois, with a startling directness.
His portraits rarely come up for sale, but when they do they often far exceed their estimates. An exhibition at the Frick Collection three years ago showed how sought after he was throughout Europe. Liotard charged high fees and also made a lot of money dealing in Old Master paintings. At the age of 79, he published a treatise on the principles of painting, a subject on which he had very strong views.
Liotard's print-making, however, was almost completely overlooked during his lifetime. Only in 1897, just over a century after his death, was a full study made of his prints and mezzotints by an Amsterdam professor of surgery, J. W. R. Tilanus, whose wife was a descendent of Liotard's.
Now a collection of Liotard prints that once belonged to Tilanus have come on to the market for the first time since 1934. They are from a private Swiss collection, and together they allow the viewer to look afresh at how a hugely talented artist worked in a medium that was not his own.
Only 17 Liotard prints survive. This collection contains 13, including an important large self-portrait (pictured above). He produced them on an irregular basis. He made seven between 1731 and 1744 and then enjoyed a final burst of activity towards the end of his life more than three decades later, as he was preparing his treatise on painting. Three of the works on offer appear to have been made for this book, but oddly were never used. A sleeping Venus, after Titian, bears a succinct resume of Liotard's views on the Venetian master: "Beautiful contrast, beautiful effect, admirable drawing."
Printmakers were very common in the 18th century, so it is not clear why Liotard chose to do his own print-making, as he clearly found it difficult. Having seen what a great print-maker like James McArdell could do in reproducing Liotard's own work, the Swiss painter was touchingly modest about his own achievements. In an advertisement for his treatise he admitted, "the prints have not been as well engraved as I would have liked nor as I'd hoped."
A contrast can be seen in two of the self-portraits in the sale. The first, done in 1773, when Liotard was in his early 30s, has a vivid freshness. As with Rembrandt's self-portraits, Liotard's are active and immediate, almost as if you are watching the artist gazing into a mirror from which he is drawing his own features in quick, intense strokes.
The second (much larger) self-portrait, was probably done around the same time as he painted the laughing picture of himself that hangs in Geneva's Musee d'Art et d'Histoire. He appears to be wearing the same floppy-sleeved coat, and the same dark-edged hat. On careful examination, you can see that Liotard is unhappy with his own work: he has worked away at the hatching on his forehead and the end of his nose, and added deep areas of shading over the front of his coat and around the folded sleeve. That said, it is an arresting portrait. Like Picasso, who could turn his hand to print-making and ceramics as easily as he could paint, these prints show without doubt that Liotard was an artist and never a craftsman.
The Liotard prints are part of the Old Master, Modern and Contemporary prints sale at Christie's in London on April 8th (Estimates [pounds sterling]1,000-15,000).
Source Citation:"Pen and ink; European prints; A rare collection of Liotard prints comes up for sale." Global Agenda (April 4, 2009): NA. Military and Intelligence Database. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 22 May 2009
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