The Large Self-Portrait

The Large Self-Portrait
mezzotint with roulette and engraving, circa 1778-80, on laid paper, indistinct Words watermark, a very good impression of this rare and important print, a proof before letters, with wide margins, a horizontal printer's crease, flattened folds at the left and right of the image and along the platemark below, some pale staining in the margins, otherwise in good condition
Plate 447 x 398 mm., Sheet 550 x 438 mm.
With Arsène Bonafous-Murat, Paris.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1993.
Humbert, Revilliod & Tilanus 8; Roethlisberger & Loche 522
Regency to Empire - French Printmaking 1715-1814, The Baltimore Museum of Art & The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1985, exhib. cat., no. 84 (an impression after letters illustrated).

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Lot Essay

The pastel upon which this mezzotint is based was made in Geneva around 1770 (Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva), and exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1773. In the print the artist presents himself gazing directly at the viewer, clasping his chin with his hand and wearing his characteristic fez, with the added detail of the chair back which is absent in the drawing. Whereas the pastel relies on the contrast of the figure's vivid colouration with the dark background, in the mezzotint Liotard explores the effects of chiaroscuro without the aid of colour. In his treatise on painting Traité des principes et des règles de la peinture, published in 1781, Liotard wrote with reference to this print: 'I have tried to render a fine chiaroscuro and 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'. It has been suggested that Liotard was introduced to the mezzotint technique while he was in London from 1773-75, however his experimental approach is very different to that of contemporaries such as Thomas Frye. Liotard's use of roulette and engraving on top of mezzotint to enhance contours and to reinforce shadows creates the impressive three-dimensionality of the self-portrait, as well as a sense of weight and solidity often absent in the soft-focus surfaces of more conventional burnished mezzotints.

Regarded as his masterpiece in the print medium, impressions of this important self-portrait are extremely rare. The first catalogue of Liotard's graphic oeuvre by Humbert, Revilliod & Tilanus (1897) cited a total of seven impressions, comprising two proofs before letters (British Museum, London & Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and five with letters (National Gallery of Washington; Musées d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva; ETH, Zurich). Since then, two further proofs before letters have come to light, one in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the present one. Only one impression, with letters, has been offered at auction within the last thirty years (Christie's, London, 8 April 2009, lot 29; now Fondation Custodia, Paris).

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