The Swiss pastellist, painter, printmaker, writer and picture dealer Jean Etienne Liotard (Geneva 1702-1789) was one of the most original and talented draftsmen of the 18th century. His style owed little to other artists or conventions of fashionable salon art and his sitters, whether they came from the nobility, the bourgeoisie or fellow artists, were all treated with startling directness.
Born in Geneva, he spent his early career in Paris. From 1736 he embarked on a long period of travel that took him to Constantinople, as well as to Rome, Vienna, London, and Holland. His eccentric manner and long beard acquired in Turkey made him a curiosity in Europe, but his enormous talent meant he was much in demand and able to charge fees indicative of profound self-confidence.
The print-making side of his career was almost entirely overlooked by contemporary commentators and those who followed. Indeed, it was more than a century after his death before a systematic study was undertaken by J.W.R. Tilanus, published in Amsterdam in 1897.
His entire output stands at no more than 17 prints, which appeared at irregular intervals; four in Paris in 1731, one in Rome in 1737, two in Vienna in 1744, then a gap of 36 years before a final burst of activity. At the age of almost eighty, Liotard published the Traité des principes et des régles de la peinture, in which he explained his concept of painting as a mirror of nature. Nine mezzotints were engraved as illusrations - the only coherent group in his output. The recently disputed Self-Portrait in his Studio would, if right, sit somewhere in the middle of this lacuna, probably during his visit to London between 1773 and 1775.
Nine of his prints are portraits (two of them self-portraits). Ten are versions of his own work in oil, pastel or pencil, three are versions of others' work, and three (four including the Self-Portrait in his Studio) have no known source. Most are extremely rare, some are unique impressions, or, in two cases, unique counterproofs of states which no longer exist. Only the first two bear a publisher's address, indicating that his subsequent efforts were self-published, in very small editions. No posthumous impressions are known, and none of the plates have survived.
Whilst none of Liotard's prints can be said to display conventional technical virtuosity it is revealing to watch a master of one discipline working in another, with unfamiliar tools. Most notable from this point of view are the two self portraits, the Fumeurs flamands and the portrait of Joseph II. Clearly some way short of the stunning results achieved by James MacArdell and Richard Houston in the 1750s (whose versions of his own work Liotard must have seen), these mezzotints have a naïve beauty more appealing than many other, more proficient examples of this difficult technique. Some debate surrounds exactly how they were produced, with Tilanus being the first to believe they were made not with a rocker, but a mattoir and roulette. Whatever the method, Liotard was touchingly modest about the results, admitting in his advertisement for the Traité that they were not as well printed as he would have liked or hoped.
The prints of the present group are almost certainly those offered at auction in Amsterdam in 1934, having come down through the Liotard family to Professor C. B. Tilanus. His sale contained a lot described as a 'portfolio with many antique prints', which was bought by the Societé auxiliaire du Musée du Genève. They extracted seventeen drawings for the museum, and promptly sold the balance to a local dealer, Rodolphe Dunki. He then sold them to a collector, also in the Geneva area, from whose family they now come.
We are extremely grateful to Professor Marcel Roethlisberger for his assistance in cataloguing this collection. His new monograph on Liotard, written together with René Loche, was published by Davaco, Doornspijk, Netherlands, in 2008.