Whilst Ai Weiwei commands the major rooms of the Royal Academy, the smaller Sackler Galleries hold the first major exhibition in London of the work of Jean-Etienne Liotard. The exhibition is a collaboration with the National Gallery of Scotland where it was shown during this year’s Edinburgh Festival.
As a study in contrasts, the difference between Jean-Etienne Liotard and Ai Weiwei could hardly be more comprehensive. Weiwei sits outside the establishment and offers pointed criticism; Liotard made his living by befriending the establishment, from royalty downwards. Weiwei operates at the margins, Liotard positioned himself at the heart of society. For Weiwei art is a means of communicating ideas, with the craft often outsourced to others; for Liotard his art is his craft. Weiwei is large scale and dramatic; Liotard is small scale and unthreatening. But both are well worth the time to study.
Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) was born in Geneva but travelled throughout his life to the centres of wealth and patronage where he could receive commissions for the portraits on which his reputation was built. He had an extraordinary to capture likenesses and built a reputation as commercially aggressive, able to charge large fees but still able to obtain the patronage of many of the crowned heads of Europe.
Although he produced some fine portraits in oil, his preferred medium was pastel which allowed him to demonstrate his superb draughtsmanship and bring to life both his patrons and their clothes, which are rendered in remarkable detail and to great effect.
In addition to spending time in the major European capitals, Liotard also spent four years in Constantinople capturing the ‘exotic’ costumes of the Ottoman Empire and allowing him to feed the new European hunger for orientalist scenes, often called turqueries. He brought back not just drawings but costumes and many of his European clients were painted by him in oriental costumes which he provided for the purpose.
The exhibition focuses on his portraits and shows how he was able to capture royalty, the aristocracy and the gentry across Europe, often capturing an informality which suggests that he was particularly effective at putting sitters at their ease. But he also painted still life’s and trompe d’oeil and the examples in the exhibition are breathtaking in their expertise.
This exhibition is not for those who are seeking a political message. But as a demonstration of the very highest quality of draughtsmanship and portrait representation it is hard to think it could be bettered. Well worth a visit.