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2 juillet 2012

Jean-Etienne Liotard (Geneva 1702-1789), A pensive woman on a sofa


Jean-Etienne Liotard (Geneva 1702-1789), A pensive woman on a sofa. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd., 2012

empera on vellum, pen and black ink framing lines on the left and top edges, laid down on cardboard; 3¼ x 3 5/8 in. (8.8 x 9.7 cm.). Lot 69. Estimate £400,000 - £600,000. 

ProvenanceR. Marx (L. 1800b).
Alfred Hausammann, Zurich.
Madame Behrens-Hausammann, Zurich.
Private collection.

LiteratureM. Roethlisberger and R. Loche, Liotard: Catalogue, sources et correspondance, Doornspijk, 2008, vol. I, no. 296, vol. II, fig. 432 (with wrong dimensions).

NotesThis composition in bodycolour on vellum is based on a lost red and black chalk drawing of which a counterproof survives, now in the Louvre (Fig. 1; inv. RF 1388; A. de Herdt, Dessins de Liotard, exhib. cat. Geneva and Paris, 1992, no. 67). The drawing was executed by Liotard during his travels in the Greek islands and Turkey between 1738 and 1742. As frequently happened with Liotard and also as testimony to the composition's popularity among his patrons, the artist repeated it - adding the richly coloured medallion Ushak carpet from West Anatolia and a still life including a mirror reflecting the opposite wall - after he came back from his travels.

Besides the present horizontal work, three upright pastels, all on vellum but of various sizes, are known. One, bearing the date '1749' on the backing board, is in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva (Fig. 2; 23.5 x 19 cm.; Roethlisberger and Loche, op. cit., 2008, no. 190); another is in the Wrightsman Collection, New York (58.5 x 47.2 cm.; Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 295); and the third is in the Rijskmuseum, Amsterdam (Fig. 3; 103.8 x 79.8 cm.; Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 348). A horizontal version, described as 'Une Franque de Constantinople assise sur un sofa, miniature', was exhibited by the artist in 1771. Roethlisberger and Loche (p. 464) identified it as the present work but the significant differences in measurements (17.6 x 20.3 cm against 8.2 x 9.2 cm.) make this unlikely. The large pastel in Amsterdam differs from the others in including a vase of flowers but not the letter on the carpet. Apart from that the versions differ only in slight changes to the colour of the dress, the cushion and the background.

This composition has engendered a long-running debate among scholars over issues of dating, chronology, and the identity of the sitter(s). It is known from inscriptions on some of his drawings that Liotard occasionally drew local women in their native dress on his travels through Italy and Asia Minor. The Louvre counterproof does not bear any inscription, but the name 'Mimica' is inscribed on the backboard of the frame of the pastel now in Geneva. Mimica (diminutive of 'Dimitra') was the name of a young woman of Constantinople whom Liotard reputedly wished to marry but whose mother forbade the match. Because of a mezzotint by Richard Houston (1721-1775) showing only part of the composition and bearing the legend 'The Right Hon.ble Maria Countess of Coventry' (Fig. 4; Roethlisberger and Loche, fig. 431a), the pastels have often been identified as portraits of Maria Gunning, one of the famously beautiful Gunning sisters, wife of the 6th Earl of Coventry. In 1988 Danielle Buyssens (Peintures et pastels de l'ancienne école genevoise, XVIIe-début XIXe siècle, Geneva, 1988, under no. 184) suggested that only the Amsterdam version portrays the countess. This theory was rejected by Alastair Laing in 1992 ('Geneva and Paris: Liotard', The Burlington Magazine, CXXXIV, November 1992, p. 749) when he pointed out that the Liotard pastels much more closely resemble one another than they do surely identified portraits of Maria Gunning and that it was common practice for print publishers to add apocryphal names of celebrated figures as captions to images to enhance sales. Recently, Duncan Bull ('Princess, countess, lover or wife? Liotard's lady on a sofa', The Burlington Magazine, CL, September 2008, p. 592-602), who did not know the present work, has suggested that Richard Houston based his mezzotint on the Wrightsman version which could then represent Maria Gunning, and that the Amsterdam version is a portrait of Liotard's wife, Marie Fargues, as confirmed by old documents and its similarity to other portraits of her. It is, incidentally, significant that Liotard omitted the crumpled letter - often signifying the end of a love affair - in the Amsterdam version, replacing it in the right foreground with an elegant vase.

According to Duncan Bull, the sequence of the versions could run as follows: 'If the inscription on the Geneva backing board is accepted as autograph [...], then there is no reason to doubt the date it gives. In that case, it was in Paris, in 1749, that Liotard executed the [Geneva] pastel that he entitled 'Mimica', elaborating one of the drawings he had made at Constantinople of which a counterproof survives. In doing so he heightened its proportions, leaving a large area of space above the woman's head and creating an effect that serves to emphasize her melancholic isolation. He also introduced the discarded letter, a rare anecdotal device for an artist who so often presents his figures as if they were objects within a still life. There seems little reason to doubt that Liotard [...] considered this an image of the Greek girl he once had wished to marry [...]. Its composition was in turn used - though with different chromatic emphases, and retaining the letter - for the Wrightsman pastel which must date from between 1749 and 1754/55, whomsoever it may portray. Its size conforms to Liotard's larger portraits and the sitter's face is considerably individualized. It is thus almost certainly a portrait orientalisé, possibly representing Maria Gunning [...]. This is the work that most probably served as the (partial) source for Houston's print. Finally, at some moment after meeting Marie Fargues in Amsterdam in 1756 (but perhaps only after settling with her in his native Geneva in 1758), Liotard portrayed his bride in a format so large that it required two pieces of parchment.'

The woman's features in the present work most resemble those in the Geneva pastel (for example, the hair is dark in both versions, while it is fair in the Wrightsman pastel, and almost blond in Amsterdam) and it seems very probable that it is 'Mimica' who is represented. Roethlisberger and Loche dated it 'maybe from Liotard's first sojourn in England'. In his work as a miniaturist Liotard preferred a support of enamel or ivory, but he also produced quite a number of works on vellum (about twenty are catalogued by Roethlisberger and Loche), mostly little oval portraits. His production in this medium spans the largest part of his career, the earliest example known being a portrait of the French author Fontenelle (Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 21) executed around 1734, and the latest a wonderful little self-portrait made circa 1768 and now in the Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, CT (Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 445). Stylistically the present work most closely resembles the eight miniatures representing the children of King Louis XV (Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 185), which date from 1749-50 while the artist was in France, and a portrait of George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 261) made in London in 1753. It can also be compared with another miniature measuring 5.3 x 6.8 cm., A girl reading (Roethlisberger and Loche, no. 214), another of Liotard's most famous compositions known through at least five versions in pastel and a little work on enamel dated 1752. Interestingly, in the present work and in that on vellum of A girl reading, Liotard has opted for a horizontal format although all the versions in pastel of both compositions are upright.

The pose, with its echoes of Dürer's Melencolia I, and the still-life elements, like the mirror, that are associated with vanitas subjects, have led some scholars to see in Liotard's composition an 18th Century interpretation of Melancholy. But according to Perrin Stein (The Wrightsman Pictures, New York, 2005, p. 227), 'while such symbols were undoubtedly consciously employed by Liotard, the narrative touch of the torn-up letter and the sitter's wistful gaze would have summoned up in Enlightenment viewers not so much the abstract concept of melancholy but the pervasive fictional treatments of romance and intrigue set in the harem that were found in contemporary fiction, theater, and art'.

Liotard's virtuosity as miniaturist is evident here in the great care he took to render the delicate features, the details of the costume and jewellery, the still-life on the sofa and the intricate patterns of the carpet. In order to model the face he used the highly precise pointillist technique which was so characteristic of his work on enamel or ivory. This attention to detail resulted in an image of exquisite refinement, reaching a degree of clarity that was perhaps not possible in the medium of pastel.

The miniature bears on its backing the collector's stamp of Roger Marx (1859-1913), one of the most important French art historians and art critics of his time. Directeur des Beaux-Arts in 1888, he became Inspecteur général des musées de province in the following year, and editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1902. He published a large number of articles, and his books include Les maîtres du dessin (1899-1902). The stamp is the one that his widow applied to the works of art not included in the estate sale of 1914. 

Christie's. Old Master & Early British Drawings and Watercolours, 3 July 2012, London, King Street