A pair of portraits by 18th century painter Jean-Etienne Liotard made the news this week and you have to wonder why.
First the news: Two of Liotard’s portraits of princes from the line of Stuart Kings of Scotland and England will go on display in March at the TEFAF 2015, an art and antiques fair at the Maastricht Exhibition in the Netherlands.
While far from a household name, Liotard was famed in his day for capturing spitting-image likenesses of his sitters, and unless you care what the Stuart princes looked like, the portraits seem hardly worth a look.
Liotard was so big on getting faces of his sitters true to form, he wanted all portrait painters to follow his example and wrote a treatise declaring that all painting should mirror nature.
Superficiality marked his personality, too. Big on self-promotion, he sought to attract attention by growing a beard down to his waist and donning Turkish-style dress – even when he painted.
Talk about affectation, in “Self-Portrait with Beard,” Liotard painted himself in a bright red velvet jacket standing at his easel. The clincher is an upheld pinky finger, as if daintily toting a teacup.
A witness to Liotard’s habit of dress on a trip to Geneva, a traveler called Karl Gottlob Küttner, wrote in his journal: “Amidst the crowd of people I noticed a grotesque personage attired in a sort of bathrobe and night cap which, as I learned later on, was a turban and who carried a great Turkish sword. It was none other than the old painter Liotard.”
Fellow portrait painter Joshua Reynolds didn’t buy what Liotard was selling; although it should be pointed out that he gave Reynolds tough competition in the portrait painting business. Apparently the royals felt comfortable with Liotard’s airs and fidelity to skin-deep portraits.
To hear Reynolds tell it, “The only merit in Liotard’s pictures is neatness.“
Reynolds felt he was the better portrait painter and he was. He got into the mind of his sitters and even attempted to paint them in a way that spoke of their contribution to society. Reynold’s biographer and former pupil, James Northcote, who became a noted painter in his own right and elected to the Royal Academy, disparaged Liotard like this:
“Devoid of imagination, he could render nothing but what he saw before his eyes. Freckles, marks of the smallpox, everything found its place; not so much from fidelity, as because he could not conceive the absence of anything that appeared to him. Minuteness prevailed in all his works, grace in none; nor was there any ease in his outlines, but the stiffness of a bust in all his portraits. Thence, his heads want air and the softness of flesh.”
After all that, you have to wonder who, if anyone, will buy Liotard’s portraits at the Maastricht fair. Maybe a descendant of the Stuart family.