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Liotardiana (3): Graf Zinzendorf, the barbouilleur and the energumen

29 November 2015

Liotard Mme NeckerOr is it (4)? There seems to be no end to the stream of trivia and minutiae that can be unearthed about this fascinating artist (you can search with the box on the right the numerous posts here, at least ten since May, and many more have been silently incorporated into the online Dictionary articles) – the hunt no doubt stimulated by the current Royal Academy exhibition which runs to the end of January (so no excuse for not going, or returning often). One of the more striking pastels there is the portrait of the future Mme Necker, on loan from the Schönbrunn in Vienna (above).

The exhibition catalogue entry (no. 73) tells us that Liotard took it to Vienna in 1762 “and showed it to Maria Theresa, who convinced Liotard to sell it to her after he had made a copy for himself.” This isn’t I think quite accurate; and as the subject of Liotard’s copies and why (and when) he made them is of some interest, and as it is illuminated by a text which has not so far been noticed by art historians (as far as I am aware), I thought I would explore this in more detail. Confusingly the exhibition catalogue goes on to say “Perhaps because Liotard parted with this earlier portrait…he decided or was commissioned to paint another, probably in Paris.” The Schönbrunn pastel is dated “c.1761”; the second, “c.1772”, where the sitter is “about 12 years older”. (The chronology, p. 214, tells us that Liotard had left Paris for the Netherlands by July 1771.) This is the pastel in the château de Coppet:

Liotard Mme Necker Coppet copy

It appears in the catalogue as no. 84, to be shown in London only – although in fact it didn’t make it to either London or Edinburgh.

There is evidently a little work to do to sort this out. Although we can do so by a careful reading of the documents already published in Roethlisberger & Loche’s 2008 monograph, “R&L” (indeed the key documents were summarised in the earlier, 1978 edition; and the date for the replica of the larger Mme Necker is given in my 2006 Dictionary), the story can now be illuminated by the diaries of Graf Zinzendorf. I draw the new material from the first four tomes of the new edition of Zinzendorf’s 56 manuscript volumes of diaries, edited by Grete Klingenstein & al., Europäische Aufklärung zwischen Wien und Triest. Die Tagebücher des Gouverneurs Karl Graf von Zinzendorf 1776-1782, Vienna, 2009. This is part of a major project: hitherto only parts have been printed (they are a mine of information about Vienna in the time of Mozart). I make no apology for interspersing this with extracts from Liotard’s correspondence that you can find in R&L, as many visitors to the RA exhibition may not have seen them.

The diarist was Joseph Karl RKarl_von_Zinzendorf_(1739-1813)eichsgraf und Herr von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf (1739–1813), counsellor at the Treasury (Kommerzienrat) in Vienna 1762–66, Gouverneur of Trieste 1776–82, and later Staatsminister. Unmarried, he was a member of the Teutonic Order as you can see from the cross in this engraving.

A version of this portrait is reproduced in Robbins Landon’s Mozart (1989 ed.) optimistically as by Füger (it is not in Keil’s catalogue raisonné); it is probably too late to be given to the unidentified pastellist from Ljubljana whom Zinzendorf records making his portrait in 1777.

Zinzendorf first met Liotard in Vienna in 1762: this entry for 12 July 1762, “Promené sur le rempart. J’y rencontrais Liotard avec Neker”, suggests that Zinzendorf had already met Liotard – and informs us that Liotard already knew Necker. Two years later, when he travelled to Geneva, Zinzendorf visited Liotard – as well as Voltaire, Cramer, Moultou, Deluc and others, all within the first fortnight of October 1764. (The full entries for this year will appear in the forthcoming volume edited by Grete Klingenstein with Helmut Watzlawick.) So when Liotard went to Vienna in 1777 it was unsurprising that their paths crossed again.

The scene is set almost completely in R&L: the Schönbrunn pastel (RA no. 73) is R&L 380, with a lengthy entry on pp. 532–34. The Coppet pastel (RA no. 74) is R&L 479, entry on p. 608, and, in the absence of documentation, is dated by R&L to the Paris trip 1770/71 (noting the possibility of an earlier passage to Geneva by the sitter). That must be right. But the entry that concerns us is for the copy that Maria Theresia permitted Liotard to make, which happened, not when she first purchased R&L 380 in 1762, but much later, when Liotard returned to Vienna in 1777/78. It has a separate entry, R&L 518, discussed in detail on pp. 643–44.

The reason for this later trip is perhaps not immediately obvious. Tronchin had warned him of the potential difficulties, and when Liotard got there (with his 19-year old son, Jean-Étienne fils), the 70-year old artist did indeed find it more difficult to obtain business: rivalry with Roslin (see my essay) was a particular concern. This ran both ways: on 22 December 1777 Roslin told Zinzendorf that “[il] regrette beaucoup de ne pas pouvoir faire le portrait de l’Empereur et de l’Impératrice Reine pour la reine de France, tandis que le barbouilleur Liotard va peindre toute la famille impériale et est logé à la Cour.”

But why did Liotard spend his time copying an old picture? It is easy to accept the analysis set out by the Empress Maria Theresia in a letter to Mercy-Argenteau in Paris (3 March 1780) in which she says that he can tell Mme Necker about her purchase of the pastel, and how, when Liotard was last [i.e. 1777/8, not 1762] in Vienna, “il a fait voir de la peine de n’être plus possesseur de ce tableau, et m’a demandé de pouvoir en tirer copie. Je le lui ai accordé, mais j’ai gardé l’original.” So, one might infer that Liotard wanted to make a copy of one of his earlier masterpieces, perhaps even as evidence or admission of failing powers (of imagination if not of technique). But as we shall see the reason was quite different.

Let us pick up the story in epistolary form. Liotard to his wife, from Vienna, 9bre [i.e.November] 1777: “…je retournai chez la Comtesse de Guttemberg [one of the Empress’s private secretaries] pour la prier de demander a l’Imperatrice la permission de copier le portrait de Me Necker…” [letter resumes later:] “Je viens de visiter le Baron Putcher [also a private secretary] qui nous a recue avec toute l’amitié me remerciant de lui procurer la veue de mon fils nous avons resté pres d’une heure avec lui il parlera Lundy à l’Imperatrice et lui demandera pour moi la permission de copier Me Neker.”

Liotard to François Tronchin, 19 November 1777: “j’ay dans ma chambre le portrait de Mme Necker je le trouve admirable pour la figure et surtout les accessoires mais je ne suis pas aussi content de la tête elle n’est pas assez belle les ombres du visage sont un peu trop fortes, en un mot je ferai tout ce que pourrai pour l’embellir sans alterer la resemblance.”

To his wife, 29 November 1777: “Joye excessive, nous avons été présentés a l’Imperatrice qui nous a recue mon fils et moy avec une bonté extraordinaire jusques a me faire assoir le voulant afin dit elle que je fusse plus pres d’elle, qu’elle avoit un très grand Plaisir a me voir comme ancienne connoissance et comme j’avois fair demander a copier de mes tableaux elle m’a fait conduire pour voir celui que je voulois et qu’on me l’enverroit quand je voudrois.” And to her again, 10 December 1777: “dans mes heures perdues je copie Me Neker qui me prendra bien du tems.”

To Tronchin, 6 January 1778: “la mort de l’Electeur de Baviere et le Carnaval je crois retarderont mes operations j’ay a peu pres fait la moitié de la copie de Me Nekers.”

To his wife, 7 February 1778: “Le portrait copie de Me Necker s’avance, mais il y a encore bien à le finir. J’ay fini le haut de la figure, les fruits, la soucoupe, le verre et le vin, la table est presque faite, j’aurai encore à finir le bas de l’habit, la main et le livre.”

Liotard to Tronchin, 14 February 1778, complaining about the lack of business: “je conte bien envoyer ma copie de Me Neker purement et simplement mais comment Mr Neker peut il etre informé que mon fils veut etre Negotiant Il faudroit qu’il seut indirectement que j’ay un fils de 19 ans et que je le destine au Commerce, ma coppie est au ¾ et il se passera plus d’un mois avant qu’elle soit finie.”

At this stage Zinzendorf comes in. On 18 February 1778 Liotard calls on the new Governor of Trieste (still in Vienna) and explains his purpose with complete clarity: “Le peintre Liotard m’amena son fils et me remit un billet de Sa Maj. L’Impératrice qui [m’ordonne] de l’écouter et desire de le consoler. Le fils, un grand garçon qui porta l’uniforme de Genève, a passé trois années dans une maison de commerce à Genève et voudroit, associé à M. Vial à Nice, commencer un petit établissement à Triest. Je lui parlois longtems sur ce sujet.”

A week later, on 25 February, Zinzendorf calls on Prince Waldek who is out, and then on Liotard, who is also out. We know from his son’s diary that Liotard went to dinner with General Bechard that day.

The next day, 26 February, Zinzendorf – and we – are in luck:

Chez le peintre Liotard. Il me fit voir en enthousiaste le portrait de Mme Necker qu’il a peinte encore fille, il y a vint ans, paroissant réfléchir sur ce qu’elle lit dans un livre relié en veau, qui a pour titre: L’Amour de la Vertu, appuyée du [coude] droit sur une table, où il y a une corbeille remplie de pêches, de raisins etc., un couteau, un petit pain, une caraffe de vin et un verre d’eau. De la main droite elle dérange son fichu blanc, parsemé de fleurs bleues et fait voir un peu de gorge. Elle porte un pet en l’air de satin bleu, et a selon moi l’air d’une énergumène. Liotard, logé à la Cour sous le duc Albert, me fit voir encore des portraits commencés de l’Empereur et des archiducs, qui sont horribles, un croquis de ce noble abominable. La seule bonne chose, c’étoit des essays de peinture sur le verre à l’ancienne.

The picture Zinzendorf was shown must I think have been the original version; the copy was not yet finished, as we learn from another letter from Liotard to his wife, 11 March 1778: “j’ay encore le quart du tableau de Me Neker a finir”. Nearing completion, a new problem arises (to his wife, 2 May 1778): “Je ne sai comment traiter Mr Neker dans la lettre que je lui ecrirai. Sil faut lui donner du Monseigneur ou non, je m’en informerai chez l’Ambassadeur de france ou chez le baron de fries.”

Finally, to Tronchin, 9 May 1778: “J’ay enfin fini le portrait de Me Neker, et je conte de l’envoyer incessamment la Caisse etant prette je lui ecrirai que je le prie de recevoir cette copie du portrait de son Epouze pensant quelle pourroit lui ester agreeable l’Imperatrice a été bien aize quand je lui ay dit quel portrait cetoit.” Presumably the original was by now to be returned: Liotard suggested that a group of his best pictures, including Mme Necker and L’Écriture (also shown in the Royal Academy exhibition, no. 76), be placed with the best of the Imperial Collection in the Belvedere, but his proposal was rejected by Joseph Roos, directeur de la galerie impériale, who evidently thought they were not good enough.

The copy of Mme Necker was duly dispatched to her husband in Paris. Liotard was prevented from travelling with it by the build-up of military tensions between Prussia and Austria. What one wonders was her husband expecting? He presumably knew the Coppet pastel, but he cannot have seen the Schönbrunn portrait. We must infer his response from his conduct. The picture (on which Liotard had lavished six months’ work) is not at Coppet, and indeed was never seen again. Necker did not arrange a preferment for Liotard fils; instead he sent a polite letter and a payment of 25 louis, much to the son’s disgust (he thought the picture worth 60 louis; 25 louis was in line with ordinary small portrait prices, but about one-tenth the 200 guineas which Lord Bessborough had paid for Le Petit Déjeuner des Mlles Lavergne in 1755). The scheme in short had failed.

What do we learn from this new document, apart from this very clear explanation of Liotard’s strategy? One small detail immediately: the title of the book remains today quite difficult to decipher (although the pastel has been extensively restored in the past, I don’t think this area was altered). R&L interpolated “LAM[OUR] DE [LA] VERTU”, and (once again) they are proved right: the title of the book, or at least what Liotard said it was, was L’Amour de la Vertu. Note both the subject and the duodecimo format of the book.

But there is also a fascinating reaction from a visually literate, if non-specialist, contemporary witness. For him it was the new things Liotard was doing that were “abominable”. He doesn’t share Liotard’s own enthusiasm for Mme Necker, but nor does he particularly disparage it. He comments specifically on her flirtatious rearrangement of her fichu. Liotard’s only criticism of his picture when he sees it so many years later is that the shadows on the face are too heavy: that is not what strikes us. But Zinzendorf does make one specific observation which I think gets to the heart of the issue: as he sees it (he does not suggest that Liotard does so), the sitter has the “air d’une énergumène”. The word isn’t particularly common in English either, but an energumen is a fanatical devotee: devilish possession is the key ingredient. It’s a more interesting suggestion than what may be our immediate response: both this and, to a certain extent, the later pastel seem to show a rather unintelligent, almost bovine face that could hardly contrast more severely with the wonderfully elegant and sophisticated depiction by Duplessis:

Duplessis Mme Necker Coppet

Was this type of portrait what Necker was expecting? If he had been told that his wife was shown with a book, would his sophisticated eye not have imagined something more like Mlle Ferrand whom La Tour shows pondering over her in-folio Newton:

La Tour Mlle Ferrand Munich copy

“La belle Curchod” we must remember was one of the most brilliant women of her age, one who had captivated two of the most intelligent men in Europe – Edward Gibbon and then Jacques Necker, and she would be the mother of the formidable Mme de Staël. Gibbon, who was forced by parental opposition to break off their engagement in 1758, tells us that her “personal attractions …were embellished by the … talents of the mind”; he found her “learned without pedantry”; her beauty “was adorned with science and virtue.” (As we learn from his diaries, Zinzendorf was actually reading Gibbon at the time of his visit to Liotard; he doesn’t tell us if he was aware of the girl’s past.)

But perhaps we should return to the first version. The pastel must have been made between the sitter’s move to Geneva (some time after the death of her father, 17 February 1760) and Liotard’s departure for Vienna in April 1762. In Geneva she lodged with Pastor Moultou where she later met Mme de Vermenoux, visiting Dr Tronchin in the city (despite numerous biographical studies, there seems to be no agreement on the exact date of their meeting; it may even be that Curchod introduced Liotard to Vermenoux rather than the other way round as normally assumed). Gibbon tells us that the Duchess of Grafton had nearly hired her as governess, but it was in that role that she would accompany Mme de Vermenoux to Paris in early 1764 (missing Zinzendorf when he dined with Moultou later that year). But at the time of the pastel, we know that she still entertained hopes that Gibbon would relent. (Suzanne was born on 2 June 1737, so marriage was becoming an urgent issue for her: but she would not have had the funds to commission this as an advertisement even had she regarded herself as available.) On his return to Switzerland in 1763, Gibbon was not alone in detecting an element of insincerity in her “false, affected character.” A taste for the theatre, and for theatricality, had taken hold; and when she was about to go to Paris with Mme de Vermenoux, her supporter, the duchesse d’Enville, wrote to Moultou from Paris (17 February 1764), to warn him that these characteristics might not go down too well in Paris:

Je suis bien aise que Mlle Curchod ait trouvé une place, en doutant cependant qu’elle soit aussi heureuse ici qu’elle était à Genève. Simplifiez-la pour son arrivée; elle ne réussira ni avec sa métaphysique ni avec sa coiffure; au nom de ciel, simplifiez-la!

The precise circumstances of Liotard’s first portrait remain unclear. For Liotard it was probably (and would be seen by Maria Theresia as) essentially a genre picture rather than a portrait: a showpiece exhibition of his skills. But it is clear that Liotard captured – without the recommended simplification – just this element of provincial histrionics that she was advised to leave behind in Geneva. This Dorothea Brooke narrowly avoided being crushed by a damn’d thick square book. But in sending his repetition to her husband, did not Liotard attempt to strangle her with another damn’d thin light one?

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