According to the label on the reverse, which seems to be associated with an early Tronchin inventory, Liotard made this sumptuous pastel in June 1759, when the sitter was 87 years old. If this is correct, and there is no reason to assume it is not, Tronchin had aged remarkably well; without doubt, this is a portrait of a man of a certain age, but the artist has captured a clarity and firmness of expression of which an 87-year-old could justifiably be proud. One cannot help but ponder on the life that this impressive old man has led, and in terms of psychological depth and insight this is one of Liotard's most successful portraits. The previous year, the artist had executed the signed and dated pastel portait of Tronchin's wife, Madame Jean Tronchin, née Anne Molènes, now in the Louvre1, which, like the present portrait remained in the Tronchin family until 1959 (see Provenance). Although the two pastels are not obviously conceived as a pair - the sitters both face in the same direction - they are in matching, superb frames, which Roethlisberger thought could very possibly be the original ones.
Liotard also made a number of portraits of other members of this illustrious Geneva family. These include two drawings of Jean Tronchin's son, Jean-Robert Tronchin (1710-1793),2 a pastel of their relative Théodore Tronchin (1709-1781)3, who was a celebrated doctor and friend of Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, and a major 1757 pastel portrait of another cousin, François Tronchin, which is one of the artist's most important works, and is now in Cleveland.4 François Tronchin (1704-1798) was a great collector, the majority of whose paintings were sold, en bloc, to Catherine the Great in 1770. One of the stars of that collection was the famous 1647 Rembrandt painting of a Woman in Bed, now in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and Liotard's immensely original portrait of François Tronchin shows the collector seated in his study with that painting, unframed, standing on an easel beside him.
Four further pastels of other Tronchins complete the remarkable series of portraits of members of this highly influential Geneva family, which Liotard executed over a period of approximately three years, 1758-1761,5 shortly after his return to Geneva, following his marriage in Amsterdam in August 1756. For the previous three decades, Liotard had lived a peripatetic existence, moving between Paris, Italy, Vienna, London and Amsterdam, and also making the four-year trip to Constantinople that was to have such a profound influence on his art, but for a dozen years or so after his marriage, Liotard based himself largely in Geneva, with only occasional forays abroad.
The majority of Liotard's Tronchin portraits remained in the possession of the family until the line died out in the middle of the 20th century, when the family estate at Bessinge, on the edge of Geneva, was sold, together with the remaining collections, to the grandfather of the present owners. The present pastel has therefore only ever been sold once before (and never on the open market), which must be a factor in its extremely fine state of preservation. The rich textures and immensely subtle tonal variations, particularly in the sitter's fine brown jacket, show Liotard at his very best, and serve to complement most effectively the portrait's reflective yet moving mood.
Roethlisberger notes the existence of a copy, in oil, which was also formerly in the Tronchin collection.
1. Roethlisberger and Loche, op. cit., no. 351
2. Ibid., nos. 580, 581
3. Ibid., no. 416
4. Ibid., no. 349
5. The other four portraits are: Madame François Tronchin, 1758, Geneva, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Roethlisberger & Loche no. 350; Madame Jean-Robert Tronchin, The Art Insitute of Chicago, Roethlisberger & Loche no. 361; Catherine Tronchin, private collection, Roethlisberger & Loche no. 382; Henriette Tronchin, private collection, Roethlisberger & Loche no. 429
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