Among the many masterpieces regularly on the walls at the Frick Collection, there’s an inconspicuous gem by the Swiss painter Jean-Étienne Liotard. Trompe l’Oeil (1771) doesn’t offer a transformative glimpse into the human psyche or herald a profound alternative to the way we look at the world. It’s a wonder anyone notices it at all. The painting is a careful rendering of a wood panel on which are displayed two Roman bas-reliefs and a pair of drawings affixed with sealing wax—a good trick performed with fastidious agility.
The appeal of the painting is slight in comparison to Frick staples—Bellini, say, or Vermeer and Corot—but that’s not to say its charms aren’t real. Once it catches the eye, Liotard’s handiwork is hard to resist. The skill that went into mimicking the grain of the wood and delineating cast shadows is considerable. The crowd-pleasing technique is no less impressive in an era accustomed to computer-generated imagery. The pleasure we experience through illusions conjured directly by the human hand—the “gee whiz” factor, let’s call it—is too primal a phenomenon to discount.
Trompe l’Oeil is included in Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789): Swiss Master, an exhibition of some 50 works on display in the Frick’s basement galleries. If you haven’t heard of Liotard, don’t sweat it. Though internationally renowned during his lifetime, Liotard’s contemporary reputation doesn’t extend much beyond his native Switzerland. He’s a local hero.
Few of the paintings, drawings, miniatures and engravings on view have been exhibited before in the United States. Most are on loan from the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva and private collections in Switzerland. The Frick is the sole American venue for the Swiss master, and if his countrymen are hoping to make Liotard a household name stateside, they have their work cut out for them.
The reason for Liotard’s limited appeal is understandable: He was a bit of a nut. He began his career as a miniaturist, studying in Geneva, his birthplace, and later in Paris. An attempt to join the French Royal Academy in 1735 was met with rejection, prompting the young artist to pack his bags and head for more accommodating milieus.
After a stopover in Italy, Liotard settled for four years in Constantinople. He grew a long beard and dressed himself in the garb of a native, adopting the persona of “the Turkish painter.” Presenting himself as such upon his return to Europe, Liotard’s newfound guise all but guaranteed notoriety, particularly at a time when facial hair was decidedly not the rage in fashionable circles.
A degree of indignation followed upon the arrival of “Le Peintre Turc” in Vienna and Paris, but so did financial success ( surprise, surprise). While in Vienna, Liotard caught the eye of Empress Maria Theresa. She would become his lifelong patron. Then, as now, shtick sells.
To contemporary eyes, Liotard’s appropriation of a foreign culture will seem fairly ridiculous, if not outright racist. Liotard with a Beard (1749), wherein the incredibly un-Turkish Liotard is seen dabbing daintily at a canvas, is notable more for its painstaking dexterity than any sense of ethnocentric homage—or indiscretion. More intriguing are the self-portraits without blatant artifice. Liotard shaved his beard only once, as a wedding present to his wife. What a man will do for a woman, a woman will do for art—albeit inadvertently.
The clean-shaven Liotard is seen in Liotard Laughing (circa 1770). It’s the showstopper, if only because it’s such a weird painting. Most self-portraits capture an artist soberly deliberating upon his individuality; concentration and gravity, not levity, are the standard. In Liotard Laughing, the painter looks directly at the viewer. With a gap-toothed smile, he points with a crooked finger at something unseen to the right. The intended whimsicality and spontaneity ring false. Liotard’s technical scrupulousness is akin to taxidermy—it stills life rather than inhabits it. Liotard Laughing will give you the creeps, and that’s the sole reason you’ll remember it.
A self-portrait done in black and white chalk has a fulsome tonal range that recalls the penetrating chiaroscuro of Rembrandt. But the drawing is the exception to Liotard’s rule. He had no truck with painterly trappings or, for that matter, the deeper reaches of human experience.
In Treatise on the Principles and Rules of Painting, published in 1781, Liotard advised against visible traces of the artist’s hand. Since one didn’t see brushstrokes in nature, he reasoned, they had no place in art: Mimesis didn’t allow for material sensuality. Liotard could fool the eye, but he could not yield control. As a result, the “painter of truth” became a victim of his own expertise.
Looking at an early drawing of his twin brother, with its ill-proportioned head and unconvincingly rendered vestments, one can see why the Royal Academy turned Liotard down. Still, the artist tenaciously honed his finicky gift, ultimately wringing from it an impressive, if not altogether fluid, proficiency.
It’s in the portraits of Empress Maria Theresa’s children, done in pencil, chalk, pastel and watercolor, that Liotard managed to move beyond his own stultifying preconceptions about art, not to mention the well-rehearsed demeanor of his subjects. Gentleness emerges from the cautious gaze of Maria Christine, a sense of noble purpose from Maximilian Franz and a saucy skepticism from Marie Antoinette—yes, that Marie Antoinette. In drawings like these, Liotard elicits, if just barely, a sense of vulnerability and understanding. They’re a welcome respite from an otherwise quizzical and narrow achievement.
Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789): Swiss Master is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until Sept. 17.