He painted portraits in the 18th century, but not as we know them. For a start, they are usually in pastels not oils. Secondly, they establish an unusual relationship of equality between painter and sitter. They respect the sitter’s social position, but the sitter looks at the painter or out of the frame without superciliousness. Thirdly they can sometimes be tinged with informality.
Since pastels produce an exceptional, brushstroke-free smoothness to the flesh, like make-up in their way, the faces attain the luminosity of formal photographic portraiture. In some of them an informality in gaze, in gesture or in costume suggests the camera’s naked truth rather than the varnished version of classical oil painting.
When he painted, there were 200 to 300 years of tradition in artists’ self-portraits, but the image for which he is perhaps best known – the artist’s face turned towards the viewer, hair a bit unkempt, his index finger pointing off-frame right, and laughing – is not just a self-portrait but a selfie. Let us then call it the first selfie, an accolade which we have only learnt to bestow in the 21st century, the selfie era. He made at least a dozen versions of himself spread throughout his life.
The painter is Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702 to 1789), whose scattered artistic remains are to be found in all sorts of collections, but which are now all too briefly gathered at the Royal Academy in London until the end of January (having been at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh in summer 2015). Catch them if you can. On the other hand, because the paintings have this photographic feel, and because I have long felt photographs are best appreciated in a book on the lap rather than framed on the wall, the catalogue is very rewarding.
It wasn’t all good. Fingers are definitely not his forte, the lips can sometimes look fuzzy, and his noses look too soft: where is the bone beneath the skin? But the draughtsmanship is often superb, the eyes of his sitters are lit with a vital spark, the skin tones are delicious, the fabrics gorgeous. The peaches on the table in his terrific portrait of Suzanne Curchod look so ripe and perfect that you long to eat one.
Francis Bacon I suspect would not have approved. He felt painting should be something other than an illustrational process. “A non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.” Liotard’s portraits on the other hand start by illustrating a society and an age, its facts as it were, but to my mind they ‘leak back’ if not into sensation then into enquiry. I would like to know more about these people, to have made their acquaintance at the least, and possibly more than that, for their appearance, while often plain, just as often suggests to us that there is more to the world than being ‘skin deep’.