Liotard’s Pastel Perfection


A friend tipped me off that the Jean-Etienne Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy was choc-full of pastels.  He wasn’t kidding.  The miniatures are fabulous, the drawings are exquisite and the oil paintings are superb, but the pastels are where the action’s at.

We’re talking about pastel portraits.  Without the labels, I’d have thought that many of the works were photographs.  There was depth in the colour of the clothes, but the sitter’s arms, hands and features also seemed far more real, inviting you to reach out and grab their attention.  A number of the portraits were slightly off-centre and, in some cases, a hand disappeared behind the frame, which added to the sense of movement and life in the subjects.

The character shone through and there was a strong sense of a real person, not a stylised likeness.  That reached across the centuries and evoked a sympathy – or not – for the individual.  How this was achieved with pastels is beyond my comprehension.

Favourites were the court portraits of the family of Louis XV and the children of the Prince of Wales (even the one where Prince George’s coat had faded from bright red to barely pink).  The portrait of Liotard’s daughter holding a sleeping doll – and holding up her finger to tell people to be quiet – is a joy.

I had no idea there were such treats in store and I nearly didn’t bother to go.  So glad I did.  Don’t miss it.


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