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Mlle Liotard playing with her doll: some puzzles

6 January 2016

Liotard Marianne Liotard avec une poupeeThe pastel on the cover of the current Liotard exhibition catalogue, and one which has understandably drawn a great deal of attention, is a delightful picture of a little girl with her doll lent by the Schönbrunn in Vienna. The catalogue entry (suffering from space limitations) tells us that the sitter is Marianne Liotard (1767–1830), the artist’s youngest child, and notes that the identification is based on an entry in her brother’s missing diary; it quotes the description from this diary: “De son doigt elle fait signe de garder le silence, sa poupée étant endormie.” This is said to come from a madrigal: strictly I think it is supposed to be the brother’s commentary on the madrigal, but that too is missing. The catalogue correctly goes on to highlight the problem with the picture: the girl appears to be about five, but Liotard left Geneva at the end of 1770 (age 3) and didn’t return until October 1774 (age 7). Noting the difficulty, the catalogue opts for “c.1775” as the date. After a short discussion of the nature of genre v portraiture and a brief mention of Chardin as a possible source, the entry concludes with another mystery: how did the pastel enter the Austrian imperial collection (where its entry was unrecorded), speculating that it was a gift from the artist to Maria Theresia.

Surugue ar Cochin L'Inclination de l'ageThat in a nutshell is the conundrum. Roethlisberger & Loche have a much longer discussion of these issues (R&L 506, p. 629, also opting for the later date by placing the work in the chapter on “Genève 1774–1777”) – and of course more similar pictures of children with dolls. The lost Chardin picture was surely in oil, not pastel; it is known from the Surugue engraving entitled L’Inclination de l’âge (misprinted elsewhere: note that inclination and inclinaison do not mean the same, nor does the title translate into English as readily as some think), which may encourage the idea that this was a genre piece; but the 1738 salon livret makes it perfectly clear that the original was a portrait, of “la fille de M. Mahon, marchand, s’amusant avec sa poupée”. R&L note that the “pose de la tête est semblable”, although Chardin’s sitter looks at us directly, while the innovation in Liotard’s pastel is the lost look. The Chardin picture is also extremely complicated in ways this blog is too short to explore; but perhaps a more relevant parallel is with a virtually contemporary drawing by Liotard’s arch enemy, Charles-Nicolas Cochin, which I published some years ago (in my 2001 GBA article on the abbé Pommyer). The charming Chou-Chou, dated 1771, depicts Pommyer’s great-niece Élisabeth d’Incourt de Fréchencourt, later baronne de Jacquier de Rosée, so we know the girl was four; while technically not as ambitious as the Liotard, the drawing displays a freedom and informality which underlines the mutual incomprehension between the two artists.

Cochin Chou ChouAnyway, to return to the puzzle. R&L explain that Liotard fils’s diary was reported by Numa Trivas in his unpublished 1936 manuscript, and never seen again. Based on this diary, Trivas reported that the girl was (plausibly, but surely at most) “donc 6 ans” (but without the context the premise for this deduction is unclear); and he provided further details from the same source, including the brother’s description: “elle était jeune…” (note the past tense, as though the diary entry was written possibly far later than the time of the portrait – as seems highly likely, since Liotard fils was only a child at whichever date the pastel was made), and this passage:

Un “Madrigal adressé à Monsieur Liotard à l’occasion du Portrait de sa Fille Cadette, par M. Bocconi” fait allusion à ce tableau. Dans un notice explicative, l’auteur précise: “De son doigt…[etc.]” Bocconi, Italien catholique, avait changé de religion à Genève; avait beaucoup d’éducation.

R&L then add that, while knowing neither the madrigal nor Bocconi, one should trust the text, which offers the sole basis for identifying the girl. (She grew up to marry M. de Fernex, so you will find her under F in the Liotard articles in the Dictionary of pastellists: lexicographers have to follow rules.)

But we do know M. Bocconi, and he does fit the description. He was August-Joseph Bocconi (1739–1775), from Todi, in the duchy of Milan. On 30 December 1769 (having converted) he was given “habitation” in Geneva:

Bocconi habitation

And a week later he married Marie-Henriette Corriger, daughter of a bourgeois of the city.


All this is in the city archives (registres du Conseil and État civil). We know a good deal more from his correspondence with various luminaries of the day, Charles Bonnet, Francis Kinloch and, most important (because his letters have been edited with Teutonic thoroughness) Karl Viktor von Bonstetten. From this we know that Bocconi translated erudite religious treatises (“le morceau de la Palingénésie relatif à la Révélation”) into Italian (well, apparently: “Un Connoisseur, bon Juge de son travail, en est très satisfait”), and that he travelled a good deal. He was ill in London 1771–72. In June 1772 he was living in the house of Gédéon Turrettini; a year later in the rue des Chaudronniers. He also knew comte Diodati and Jean-Edme Romilly (pastor in the French church in London whom ill health forced to return to Geneva; his father wrote the article on Horlogerie for the Encyclopédie and was close to Rousseau). But Bocconi seems to have spent the winter of 1774–75 in Montpellier. And he was certainly dead by early February 1775, in Lyon, where he was buried in the Protestant church:

Bocconi Lyon Protestant church 12ii1775.jpg

So what does this mean? Liotard returned to Geneva on 12 October 1774. It is scarcely credible that he could have finished this pastel (see my earlier blog for how long he took to do a repetition of Mme Necker) in time for Bocconi to see the finished work and write a cheery madrigal (or was it perhaps a poem designed to be placed under the image, as Surugue engraved verses from Chardin’s friend Pesselier?) before going off to Montpellier and then getting to Lyon in time to die (there is no need to speculate about the possible progression of the illness he had in London, perhaps consumption, as he was only 35, or whether he travelled to Montpellier for its renowned medical school).

The alternative, bearing in mind that Marianne was born in August 1767, is that she was only three. Both R&L and the 2015 exhibition catalogue decide against this, although it is my marginal preference. Before you disagree, look at the two English princesses and guess their ages (answers below):

Note also the relative size of Marianne’s head to her body, suggesting that she might be younger than she looks. Whichever way you look at it, however, this is problematic. Incidentally there is no doubt about Marianne’s age, and this baptismal entry also tells us (not I believe previously reported in the literature) that her godfather was François Tronchin:

Marianne Liotard bapteme

But isn’t there a much simpler explanation? Without the diary entry in front of us, how do we know that it specifically identifies Marianne rather than her elder sister Marie-Thérèse? No other pastel of her is known, so the eye colour cannot be compared; there is nothing in the other portraits that would rule her out (or in). Her dates (1763–1793) work perfectly: Bocconi was in Geneva in 1768–69 when the pastel could easily have been made. Bocconi’s madrigal merely identifies the girl as of the “fille cadette”, but he might simply have meant to distinguish her from the eldest girl Mariette (1761–1813) [see postscript below]. Maybe Trivas simply read to much into the title.

What seems to me the most important point is that Maria Theresia was godmother to Marie-Thérèse Liotard: surely it would have been the most natural thing to send the empress the portrait of her godchild – and, conversely, rather bizarre to send her a portrait of one of the children who was not? Of course it is possible that Liotard sold it to her as a genre piece (that after all was why she bought Suzanne Necker à la livre, although she certainly knew the sitter’s identity), but there is no record of a purchase, and for me the idea of a gift, and of the right daughter, feels more plausible. As for a gift of the wrong one, what was Liotard planning to say to the Empress had she asked: is that my goddaughter?

Arguments based on determining age from visual appearance in portraits are seldom as reliable as documentation; but without the missing diary we may never get to the bottom of this, and whether Trivas made an unwarranted inference from it (or even if, since he seems to have been writing later, Liotard fils himself was confused). But I think it highly probable that the pastel belongs to an earlier chronological chapter; and it seems plausible that we have also got the wrong daughter.


I am most grateful to Catriona Seth for pointing out that “cadette” strictly speaking refers to the second daughter; Marianne was in fact the “benjamine”. Whether each of Bocconi, Liotard fils and Trivas followed such niceties is less certain.


Princess Caroline, on the left, is 3; Louisa Anne, on the right, is 5 (according to R&L; the RA catalogue unaccountably states that she is 6, which only makes the problem worse).

Sources and notes

As usual R&L should be the starting point. The Livres des habitants de Genève 1684–1794 was published in 1985 by the Société d’Histoire et d’Archéologie de Genève, edited by Alfred Perrenoud with Geneviève Perret; but you can also find the documents reproduced above directly through the Base Adhémar. Bonstettiana: historisch-kritische Ausgabe der Briefkorrespondenzen Karl Viktor von Bonstettens und seines Kreises 1753 – 1832  is part of the monumental series edited by Doris and Peter Walser-Wilhelm published in Bern (not technically German, but admirably thorough). I have also quoted from Gisela Luginbühl-Weber’s Johann Kaspar Lavater, Charles Bonnet, Jacob Bennelle: Briefe 1768-1790; ein Forschungsbeitrag zur Aufklärung in der Schweiz, I, 1997, p. 37; see also Biologia e religione nel Settecento europeo: la corrispondenza tra Alfonso Bonfioli Malvezzi e Charles Bonnet, 1773-1788, ed. Sandro Cardinali, 1998. My article on Pommyer, La Tour and Cochin was « L’abbé Pommyer, honoraire amateur de l’Académie royale de peinture », Gazette des beaux-arts, mai–juin 2001,  CXXXVII, n° 1588–89, pp. 237–56; parts of it can be found in my essay.


From → Art history

One Comment
  1. VOGELAAR, Christiaan permalink

    Dear Mr Jeffares, have you considered that the ‘fille cadette” might refer to Marie Nicole, the illegitimate daughter of Jean Etienne Liotard ? She was born 25 or 27 october 1750 in Paris where Liotard lived at the time. Her mother was the actress Mlle Raymond. Marie Nicole was adopted by Lioard and his wife in 1756 and came to stay with the family in Geneva. She married on her 17th with Jean Mollet, son of the Geneva negociant Jean Mollet and Lioatrd’s sister Jeanne Judith. In the marriage contract dated May15th, 1767, Marie Nicole was mentioned as “fille naturelle de Sieur Jean Etienne Liotard”. I think to have a unpublished portrait of Marie Nicole, painted by Liotard. It has stayed in the family for some 150 years. My uncle was a descendant of Marie Nicole Liotard and Jean Etienne Mollet. Their son Jean Etienne Mollet [b. Genève 17 sept. or 7 octobre 1768 – died Amsterdam 5 november 1851) maried 16 febr. 1801 Sophie Reine Henriette [von] Cotta; their daughter Caroline Louise Mollet, (b. Marseille 19 february 1811 and died 1894) married 1833 the banker Daniel Boissevain from Amsterdam who was the grandfather of an uncle who left me the portrait some twenty years ago. Please gfeel free to visit me some time in Amsterdam to have a look at this portrait which I enormously like. She strongly resembles the little girl with her puppet in your wonderful blog article… Christiaan Vogelaar, Amsterdam

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