PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED SWISS PRIVATE COLLECTION
Five of the artist’s still lifes can be surely dated between 1783 and 1786; these include the present example, thanks to the inscription by Liotard’s son on the backing: Jean-Etienne Liotard: peinte par mon père à Begnins en 1786. JEL. As observed by Roethlisberger and Loche, these works are very private and intimate depictions. Made as works in their own right, not commissioned and generally not intended for sale (even if it seems Liotard did intend to send two for sale to Catherine the Great2), they manifest a very personal artistic ‘credo’, and their striking modernity is far ahead of their century.
The present pastel is rendered with the utmost simplicity, and though its execution is less finished and polished than might have been the case in earlier years, it is clear that even though the artist may have lost some sharpness of sight, he retained all his innovative and effective technical skills. Liotard reduces his image to the absolute essentials and depicts it with remarkable freedom.
His daughter Marie Jeanne, in a letter from Geneva to her elder brother in Amsterdam, dated 10 September 1782, wrote: ‘Il s’occupe toujours mon très cher Papa il a peint depuis quelque tems des tableaux de fruits qui sont en vérité un chef d’oeuvre… Il sont admiré de tout le monde nous sommes extrêmement contente de cella parce que ca lui a fait quitter la gravure qui lui faisait beaucoup mal aux yeux..’ (He is keeping himself busy my dear Father he has painted since some time some paintings of fruits which are truly masterpieces …and they are admired by everybody and we are extremely happy because this has resulted in him abandoning printmaking which is so bad for his eyes).3 As Marcel Roethlisberger pointed out in his important 1985 article4, throughout his career still-life had played a significant role in Liotard’s portraits, and various writers have remarked on the modernity of the artist’s pure still lifes, which appear to anticipate artistic tendencies that were to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century.
Michel Faré, like Numa S. Trivas before him, wrote: ‘De tous les peintres de nature morte du XVIIIe siècle, Liotard est le plus sobre. Chardin, à ses côtés, nous paraît presque conventionnel. Il dépasse tous les peintres de son temps par des préoccupations plastique auxquelles, un siècle plus tard, le nom de Cézanne est associé.’ ('Of all the painters of still lifes in the eighteenth century, Liotard is the most restrained. Beside him, Chardin seems almost conventional. Liotard surpasses all artists of his time in terms of the preoccupation with sculptural qualities with which, a century later, the name of Cézanne is associated').5
The association both with the works of Chardin, which Liotard greatly admired and could have seen while in Paris, and especially with those of Cézanne, seems poignant when considering some of Liotard’s works of this late period. It is certainly of striking relevance in the case of the present still life, an unpretentious depiction of a simple dish, with the fruits, slightly larger than actual size, arranged in a natural but elegant manner. The depiction emphasizes the beauty and simplicity of an unassuming life experience. The vivacity of the strokes and the subtle modulation of colours demonstrate the artist’s ability, which has gone beyond the pure imitation of nature: the freedom of execution and brilliant handling of light bear witness to the unparalleled sophistication in the pastel medium that Liotard’s long years of experience gave him in his later works.
The artist proudly indicates his age in some of these late works, as we can see in the extraordinary pastel, now in the Geneva Museum, Still-Life: Pears, Figs, Plums, Bread Roll, and Knife on a Table, signed: peint par J E. Liotard agé de 80 ans.6 A letter by Liotard to his eldest son, Jean-Etienne, dated 1782, witnesses the fact that the aging painter was asked by friends, who admired his works, to add his age.7 In the 2002 Geneva Liotard exhibition catalogue, Cäsar Menz stressed that such a reference to the artist’s age was rather unusual in the eighteenth century, suggesting the artist's awareness of the passing of time: in the time-honoured vanitas tradition, the painter alludes to his own mortality, in the context of an image in which the subject, the fruit, is equally perishable.8 In her essay on Liotard’s still lifes in the recent Royal Academy exhibition catalogue, MaryAnne Stevens has also noted that Liotard thought rather highly of these late works, as is documented by the same letter to his son, mentioned above, in which he wrote that he 'considered these works to have greater freshness, vivacity and three-dimensionality than the still-life of the great Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749)9'..., and also noted that he felt they displayed his current artistic prowess to advantage as compared with that he had shown fifty years ago.'10
These late still lifes are the last expression of Liotard's artistic career and talent. In them, his true observation of nature is expressed with confidence, and now also with freedom. They are his final testament, surpassing even the power of dissimulation that can be achieved by 'Painting'. He wrote in his treatise on painting: 'Rivale de la nature, qu'elle embellit souvent, la peinture est la plus étonante magicienne; elle sait persuader, par les plus evidents faussetés, qu'elle est la vérité pure.' (Rival of Nature, which she embellished often, Painting is the most successful of magicians; she can convince, with the most evident deceitfulness, that she is the real truth).11
1. Roethlisberger and Loche, op. cit., 2008, vol. I, p. 668
2. Jean-Etienne Liotard, exh. cat., op. cit., 2015, p. 166
3. Roethlisberger and Loche, op. cit., 2008, p. 667
4. Roethlisberger, op. cit., 1985, p. 111
5. M. Faré, La nature morte en France: son histoire et son evolution du XVIIe au XXe siècle, Geneva 1962 p. 172
6. Geneva, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, inv. no. 1897-10
7. Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789) dans les collections des Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève, exh. cat., Geneva, Musées d'Art et d'Histoire, 2002, p. 106
8. Ibid., p. 108. The interpretation as a 'vanitas', is not, however, shared by Roethlisberger and Loche (op. cit., 2008, p. 668)
9. Liotard himself owned two works by Jan Van Huysum
10. Jean-Etienne Liotard, exh. cat., op. cit., 2015, p. 166
11. Traité des Principes et des Regles de la Peinture par J. E. Liotard peintre citoyen de Geneve, ed. Pierre Cailler, Geneva, 1945, p. 44
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