Lot 58. Jean-Étienne Liotard (Geneva 1702 - 1789), Portrait of Francis Owen, three-quarter-length, in seventeenth-century Van Dyck costume, signed and dated on the plinth, center right: J.E. LIOTARD/1773, oil on unlined canvas, 50 by 40 in.; 127 by 101.6 cm. Estimate: 400,000 - 600,000 USD. © Sotheby's.
Note: Though his ties with his native Switzerland never wavered, there was perhaps no eighteenth-century artist who was more truly cosmopolitan than Jean-Etienne Liotard. Over a career that spanned six decades, he worked in almost all the main cultural centers of Europe, including Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Vienna, Amsterdam and London. Principally known for his work in pastel, Liotard’s oils are exceedingly rare; only some 38 are recorded in total, and the present work is amongst the largest in scale. Signed and dated 1773, Liotard painted the young Welshman Francis Owen during his second visit to England. Owen tragically died within a year of the painting’s completion; it then passed to his sister and has descended in the family until very recently.
The son of the wealthy landowner William Owen, Francis Owen was born in 1745 in Shropshire and educated at Eton and Pembroke College, Oxford. By the time he sat to Liotard, Owen was an eligible bachelor with great political prospects, having recently been named as a Member of Parliament for Helston. He would never take the seat, however, as in 1774 he was killed in a horse riding accident.
Owen is shown here in “Van Dyck” costume, a favorite choice for formal portraits at the time. Sitters in the latter decades of the 18th century would often don the fashion of the 1630s and their poses would echo those of the great van Dyck portraits of the 17th century. As described by Ribeiro (see Literature), it is hard to say how often these costumes were worn, but there are numerous descriptions of extravagant masquerades and it is thought to have been very fashionable in intellectual circles to wear van Dyck dress at certain society events as well as for patrician portraits. Here Owen wears a seventeenth-century doublet with a falling ruff. His breeches reflect the more baggy style of the late 1620s and include rows of ribbon tying them up. Interestingly, Ribeiro notes, there is a row of eighteenth-century bone buttons but no buttonholes in the painting; as the painting otherwise depicts the costume in extremely accurate and detailed fashion, it is unlikely to have been an artistic choice made by Liotard to exclude these. Rather, the double would have fastened another way, probably by lacing underneath the arms, and the buttons could possibly have been a decorative alteration made at the time to an original early seventeenth-century doublet.1
The composition of the painting reflects a portrait by van Dyck of Cornelius Vermeulen, which Liotard may have known through the engraving of 1703 (fig. 1). Owen similarly is shown with his left hand pointed downward while his right hand rests on his hip, displaying his elegant purple-red cloak in a grand manner. Liotard's use of deep and vibrant jewel-tones and attention to the varying textures of Owen's costume reflect some of his strongest works in pastel, exhibiting his sophisticated handling of oil paint even if it is a medium one does not see from the artist often. Liotard presents Owen with a psychological prestige and power made all the more impressive by his exemplary depiction of the colorful costume.
1. See A. Ribeiro, under Literature, p. 201.
Sotheby's. Master Paintings Evening Sale, 29 Jan 2020