Jean-Etienne Liotard art review: Has the Royal Academy managed to revive interest in the Swiss-French painter?

Melissa York
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L'Ecriture by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1752 (Source: Royal Academy)

★★☆☆☆ | Royal Academy

Jean-Etienne Liotard was an eccentric chap, by all accounts. The great aristocratic families of Europe thought he was a right laugh, with his eye-catching oriental robes and waist-length beard. They flocked in their hundreds to ask the Swiss-French painter to paint them and Liotard, who was a dab hand at pastel portraits, duly obliged.

But despite his impressive connections, he’s slipped through the net somewhat, historically speaking, hence this Royal Academy retrospective, intended to “restore his rightful place in the public eye”.

It’s a collection of portraits (with the occasional still life thrown in) of incredibly rich, mostly old people smiling in their Sunday best. It’s like someone found an issue of OK! Magazine from the 1750s.

When it comes to portraiture commissioned by the higher orders, there’s normally a lot of flattery going on. Liotard’s style, however, was highly accurate and naturalistic. The results are almost photographic and exude far more personality than you’d usually find in this kind of work. Unfortunately, the aristocrats who smile blandly out of the frame have little personality to give. There’s plenty of technical skill to appreciate, but you can’t help wondering whether a man who painted such dullards deserves to be remembered.

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