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Liotard’s early years in Paris

2 January 2016
Liotard Dassier

Liotard, Jean Dassier (Geneva, mAH)

In two articles in the Burlington Magazine, in 2002 and 2003, François Marandet radically transformed our knowledge of the early years of the two best-known pastellists of the eighteenth century, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour and Jean-Étienne Liotard, with the publication of their apprenticeship contracts. As it happens, they were born just 20 months apart, and both came to Paris for their training. But while La Tour followed the conventional path of a Parisian artist starting with apprenticeship at the age of 15, leading to eventual membership of the Académie royale, Liotard’s formation was anything but conventional.

A comparison between the La Tour (1719) and Liotard (1723) contracts, with Claude Dupouch and Jean-Baptiste Massé respectively, at first sight suggests they describe the same legal relationship, albeit La Tour’s is for a term of six years (Liotard’s three), and La Tour has to pay a premium (Liotard did not). The wording is of course a standard form, and large parts are essentially identical, so that, for example, the master “promet montrer [the pupil] tout ce dont il se mêle et entremêle dans l’art de la peinture, le nourrir, loger, coucher, blanchir, chauffer et le traiter humainement comme il appartient”. But there is one crucial distinction in the wording which Marandet did not notice (nor anyone else as far as I am aware, although R&L noted the absence of the word apprentissage), and which means that Liotard’s contract was not one of apprenticeship at all. Unlike the La Tour contract, Liotard is described as an “alloué”. The word is used four times in the document; there is no mistake. The legal arrangement it describes is not one of apprentissage, but of allouage.

Since the terms are otherwise similar, you might think this was a distinction without a difference. But that is not the case. An allouage was an arrangement (quite common in Paris at the time, among many trades) in which a worker, often (but not always) a compagnon or journeyman who had completed an apprenticeship already, was hired for a term. (So the scope for differences of opinion as to the role of the pupil was considerable, and may partly explain Liotard’s famous indignation with Massé’s teaching.) They could be older, like Liotard (who was then six years older than La Tour had been), or not. In about half the examples studied by historians who specialise in such things, no premium was involved; but in others the premium might be similar to that in an apprenticeship. But the crucial difference was that the arrangement did not lead to maîtrise, i.e. the right to practise independently.

How much of a problem was this? Massé was a member of the Académie royale. Under a little known arrêt du parlement de Paris of 14 May 1664, pupils of academicians who had completed three years as an “élève” were permitted to claim maîtrise in any town in France, including Paris. But the Procès-Verbaux of the Académie royale show that early cases of use of the 1664 decree were minuted, to authorise the grant of the necessary certificate; no such minute appears for Liotard, and the practice may simply have been abandoned. There is no record as to exactly when Liotard joined the Académie de Saint-Luc (as is so often the case – although of course we know he exhibited there much later), an alternative route to having the right to paint professionally. So we do not know on what basis he was able to set up in business after leaving Massé. We still know less about such things than we would like.

One of the revelations in the contrat d’allouage is in the attached letter of authority from Liotard’s father. In it he mentions two men, “Ledouble” and “Geurain”, from whom he had learned about his son’s proposed engagement with Massé; Marandet speculates that the introduction to Massé was facilitated by them, but does not further identify either.

“Geurain”, I suggest here, is surely a misreading of Pierre Gevray (1679–1759), a graveur from Geneva who established himself as a marchand in Paris where he would have retailed the watches that he had engraved. In 1729 he married, at Coppet, Jeanne de La Roche, possibly related by marriage to Liotard’s teacher Daniel Gardelle. (Gardelle was born in 1679, not 1673, an error that continues to appear frequently in the literature.)

Roethlisberger & Loche do mention Le Double, on p. 239 (omitted from the index), as a Genevan and an associate of Dassier. Jacques Le Double (1675–1733), graveur du roi privilégie suivant la cour, had in fact sublet an apartment from Massé, place Dauphine, just six months before Liotard’s contrat d’allouage; he did so with another engraver, Antoine-Charles Robineau (his son Charles-Jean Robineau was a portraitist and engraver who worked in England). Le Double’s association with Dassier was important, as we can see from a notice in the Journal historique et littéraire for June 1724 (p. 397), advertising the suite of 70 medals of famous Frenchmen in science and the arts engraved by Dassier and sold in Paris by Le Double. A permanent resident in Paris, Le Double nevertheless continued to pay taxes in Geneva. He married a Catherine Fradin in 1721, and she and four minor children were alive when he died in 1733. All four returned to Geneva, where they married into the Tremblay, Michaud, Pasteur and Bouvier families; the son, Jean-François Le Double (1729–1788), was a watchmaker in Geneva.

Liotard’s own connection with Dassier is of course well known (even on this blog), principally through the wonderful pastel of him now in Geneva (R&L 10, reproduced above) whose exact date remains uncertain. Its achievement is all the more remarkable when one investigates what other pastellists were doing at the time: the demand had been created by Vivien and Rosalba Carriera, both of whom had left Paris by the time Liotard arrived; Lundberg was the main practitioner before the emergence of La Tour, but that is another story. (So is the response of the French establishment to Liotard’s later work, the focus of my essay in the Liotard 2015 exhibition catalogue.) Less is known about Liotard’s possible relations with Dassier’s son, the medallist Jacques-Antoine (1715–1759). Born in Geneva, he trained in Paris from 1732, and must have overlapped with Liotard. Both artists went to Rome in 1736. Dassier fils worked in London 1741–45; the series of English profile medallions he made (many were copied by other artists) may have been among the influences for Liotard’s curious cameo profiles in which the images seem to display more life than a medal should.

A puzzle surrounding Liotard’s aspiration to join the Académie royale concerns his Protestantism. Massé himself was a Protestant (in a somewhat cryptic passage in his nécrologie, it is suggested that he was not particularly devout – “sans aucun fanatisme”), and this served as no barrier to his full membership: but there is no record of any special dispensation in the Procès-Verbaux, and it may be that he abjured for these purposes (Jal however states that “le Régent permit qu’on ne tînt pas compte des ordonnances de Louis XIV, et l’Académie passa outre”). And perhaps Liotard would have done the same. Otherwise, as the records of the Académie make clear, the Protestant artists – Boit, Lundberg, Schmidt, Rouquet and Roslin – were all admitted by specific royal command. As Vaillat noted, when Liotard was working for the court on his return to Paris in the late 1740s, there would have been no difficulty in obtaining the same consent had the establishment wanted him. But in the early 1730s the hurdle may have seemed higher to the artist.

In fact it was in 1732 (not 1735 as appears in all sources to 2015) that Liotard submitted a history painting (known only from an old photograph, below) for the prize competition at the Académie royale, the topic that year being Le grand prêtre Achimelech remet à David l’épée de Goliath (bafflingly no one seems to have spotted this until now: R&L conclude that he must have submitted this work to for the Académie de Saint-Luc, selecting the topic himself since they thought there was no record of the subject being set by the Académie royale, but the matter is easily discovered with the Procès-Verbaux). He was already far older than most competitors: Boucher, Natoire, Pierre, Carle and Louis-Michel Van Loo all won under the age of 21).

Liotard David et Ahimelec

R&L also note that the composition is a long way from the Aert de Gelder picture of this subject in the Getty. But other illustrations of the story were available as prints at the time, and might perhaps have provided Liotard with a visual vocabulary. One is from David Martin’s 1700 work, Historie des Ouden en Nieuwen Testaments, in two volumes with 285 illustrations, many by Bernard Picart (left). The other was from Caspar Luiken’s engraving for Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae…, issued in 1712, with a similar number of plates (right).

Liotard did not secure a prize with his rather wooden religious piece: the Académie (Procès-Verbaux, 31 août 1732) “n’a jugé aucun tableau digne du premier prix”, and awarded only a second prize, to Parrocel:


Trivas, one of the last authors to have seen the Liotard painting, commented that “La composition est théâtrale, les gestes affectés, l’ensemble vide.” To judge from the surviving old photograph; it is unnecessary to postulate Massé’s enmity for the Académie’s reaction, as Marandet has suggested; as the Procès-Verbaux reveal, Massé did not even attend the session in which the prizewinners were selected. It should also be noted that Massé kept a work by Liotard (R&L 8, now in the musée Patek Philippe, below) at the time of his will, many years later. This will is extremely long, and while Marandet mentions the work, he omits the context. The Liotard was one of a number of miniatures owned by Massé’s sister-in-law in London (Mme Jacques Massé, née Marie-Madeleine Berchère), and sent to him “pour les raccommoder”, being all “en très mauvais état”. Massé’s will goes on: “Il y a bien longtems que ces divers ouvrages sont entre mes mains et que non content de les avoir rétablis…”. No. 8 was “mon portrait en émail copié par le sieur Liotard, d’après un original peint par moy-même.” It is then referred to several times as to be sent to his niece Elizabeth, Mrs Jones, as R&L note. The group of miniatures must have been in a fire at some stage, as the damage to the Liotard suggests. When it was in the collection of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Dacres Olivier (1850-1935), Massé’s great-great-great-great-nephew, a description said to have been written by Massé was reported as being on the back (not mentioned in R&L):
Liotard ar Masse auto Patek Philippe

Jean Baptiste Massé. Il n’a plus actuellement qu’un ombre obscur et fletri de ce portrait qu’il n’a peine se faire peindre sous ses yeux que pour completter la collection de son aimable belle soeur d’apres son Portrait fait en son jeune age que l’on trouvoit ressemblable, Tel est le sort de notre hu(manite).

Reading all of these references together makes it very hard to find hostility to his former pupil. (There is an anonymous pastel copy of another Massé’s self-portrait – see the Massé article – but the technique is not Liotard’s).

None of these trouvailles fundamentally changes our picture of Liotard, but I hope they serve to flesh out some of the sketchier areas of his life and work and situate him in the artistic world in which he developed.

Postscript (19 January 2016): Jean-Michel Liotard in Paris

It is all too easy to overlook the achievements of Liotard’s prodigiously talented twin brother Jean-Michel (1702–1796). R&L devote a separate section to him, and include a catalogue of his engravings and drawings (44 numbers). Jean-Michel followed his brother to Paris in 1725; ten years later he moved to Venice. During that period he worked for the engraver Audran (as to which one, see R&L), and engraved six plates after Watteau for Jullienne. Few documents are known (we do not know what form of contract he had with Audran, but it may well be one of allouage), but I found this account of his earnings over four years in the V&A archives (where it is filed under Jean-Michel Liotard 1836-1911). It indicates how much a talented alloué could receive: some 600 livres per annum for four years. The addressee is unknown, and the “4 desseins contrepreuves” is the only indication of the nature of the work.

Scanned by Scan2Net

Sources and notes

For full references, go to R&L and the Liotard articles on Full publication details for Marandet 2002, Marandet 2003b &c. are in the Bibliography, while the Prolegomena has more (with literature) on the  in the Paris institutions (for allouage, see Thillay 2002) and on the demand for pastel created by Vivien and Carriera. William Eisler, The Dassiers of Geneva, i, 2002 and Campardon is useful. The Le Double lease is in the Archives nationales, MC, CXVIII/337, 26 octobre 1722: “Bail pour neuf ans, en sous-location, par Jacques Ledouble et par Antoine-Charles Robineau, maîtres graveurs, à Jean-Baptiste Massé, peintre de l’Académie royale, du premier appartement de deux maisons contiguës sises place Dauphine, appartenant au sieur de Creil, dont l’une a pour locataire principal ledit Ledouble, l’autre ledit Robineau, moyennant 300 livres de loyer annuel à chacun des bailleurs”. His association with Dassier: Journal historique et littéraire, .vi.1724, p. 397. The Massé description when in the Olivier collection is in Lart’s Huguenot Pedigrees, London, 1928, ii, p. 64.


From → Art history

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