53. Jean-Étienne Liotard

Genève 1702 – 1789 Genève

Self-Portrait, c. 1780

The Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard made a few prints late in his life that were highly experimental in their technique. They are very rare indeed, and that includes this Self-Portrait, which is regarded as the principal work in the group. The first catalogue of Liotard’s graphic oeuvre, which dates from 1897, lists seven impressions spread over two states. There are two impressions of the first state, before the marginal lettering.1 Four impressions have so far been described of the second state, with its intriguing inscription “Effet Clair obscur sans sacrifice”.2 The monumental oeuvre catalogue of 2008 by Marcel Roethlisberger and Renée Loche reproduces this superbly preserved impression, which the Fondation Custodia acquired in 2010.

Liotard based the print on a pastel that he made in Genève around 1770, which is here reversed left for right.3 There, too, his lined face stands out brightly against a dark background in a darkened room, but Liotard was assisted by the bright blue and red, colours that are so characteristic of his pastels. The purpose of the print is to demonstrate that it is possible to work in chiaroscuro without sacrificing legibility or brightness. Liotard discussed this subject in connection with his Self-portrait in his Traité des principes et des règles de la peinture of 1781, which is therefore the latest possible date for the print. He wrote: “I have tried to render a fine clair-obscur & although my shadows are strong, they are soft at the same time without sacrificing clarity. The shadow of the hair and the linen are a bit more brown than the weakest light in the clothes, detaching the half-figure from the surface.”4

Technically the Self-Portrait is unparalleled. It looks as if Liotard had not taken the laws of the mezzotint technique to heart but instead made completely free use of the potential of the rocker.5 From close up it can be seen how roughly the copperplate was worked with rockers of different widths.6 The basis is mezzotint, and it is conceivable that Liotard learned the technique during his stay in London between 1773 and 1775.7 The Self-Portrait seems timeless because it bears not the slightest resemblance to the sophisticated mezzotint prints from the period in which it was made.

The Fondation Custodia already had a unique counterproof of Liotard’s Self-Portrait as a young man.8 In that etching the youthful artist is looking out at the world with large, curious eyes, whereas in the present print he is resigned, reflective. These two self-portraits are the bookends to his career. It is wonderful that they have been united in the same collection with a remarkable drawing by Liotard and a miniature of his that is thought to represent Madame de Pompadour.9 GL

1For the superb impression in Amsterdam see Duncan Bull, Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789), Zwolle 2002, p. 38, fig. 30a.

2Marcel Roethlisberger and Renée Loche, Liotard. Catalogue, sources et correspondance, 2 vols., Doornspijk 2008, vol. 1, pp. 648-649, no. 522. The impressions of the second state are in Washington (National Gallery of Art, Lessing Rosenwald Collection), Genève (Musées d’art et d’histoire), Zürich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) and the one discussed here, which used to be in private hands before its acquisition by the Fondation Custodia in 2010.

3Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 588-590, no. 447, vol. 2, fig. 658.

4J.E. Liotard, Traité des principes et des règles de la peinture, Genève 1781, p. 23: “j’ai taché d’y mettre un bon clair-obscur; & quoique mes ombres soient fortes, elles sont cependant douces, n’ayant fait aucun sacrifice de clairs. L’ombre des cheveux & du linge étant un peu plus brune que le plus foible clair de l’habit, cette demi-figure est détachée de son fond.”

5Roethlisberger and Loche 2008, op. cit. (note 2), vol. 1, p. 648, note 3.

6Carol Wax, The Mezzotint. History and Technique, London 1990, p. 88.

7Victor I. Carlson et al., Regency to Empire. French Printmaking 1715-1814, exh. cat., Baltimore (The Baltimore Museum of Arts), Boston (Museum of Fine Arts) and Minneapolis (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts) 1984-1985, pp. 245-246, cat. no. 84.

8Anne and Udolpho van de Sandt in Mària van Berge-Gerbaud and Hans Buijs (eds.), Morceaux Choisis parmi les acquisitions de la Collection Frits Lugt realisées sous le directorat de Carlos van Hasselt 1970-1994, exh. cat., Paris (Institut Néerlandais) 1994, pp. 162-163, cat. no. 75; Roethlisberger and Loche 2008, op. cit. (note 2), pp. 244-45, no. 18; and Huigen Leeflang, ‘A Self-Portrait by Jean-Etienne Liotard from the Artist’s Family Holdings’, Bulletin of the Rijksmuseum 59 (2011), pp. 204-207.

9See Colin B. Bailey, Watteau to Degas: French Drawings from the Frits Lugt Collection, exh. cat., New York (The Frick Collection) and Paris (Institut Néerlandais) 2009-2010, pp. 53-54, cat. no. 11; and Karen Schaffers-Bodenhausen, Portrait Miniatures in the Frits Lugt Collection, 2 vols., Paris and London 2018, vol. 1, pp. 238-240, no. 103, vol. 2, pl. 103.