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A Liotard sleeper

5 December 2018

Liotard Dormeuse 3At the time of the Liotard exhibition in London in 2015, I noted that some visitors might go away with the impression that Liotard was a brilliant enamellist, a great oil painter, an exquisite draughtsman…but rather less accomplished as a pastellist than might have been expected. That was a comment about the difficulties of obtaining the best pastels for loan exhibitions, in turn because their owners are justifiably concerned for their safety in transit, and because a good proportion of the pastels have already lost some of their original impact. But the enamels have not: they are as fresh as the day they were done, and their rarity (only a couple of dozen survive) gives them an added cachet.

Jean-Étienne Liotard’s initial training in Geneva was as a miniaturist and enamellist and in some ways he retained those instincts throughout his life. So, while (as readers of this blog will recall) he failed to win acceptance in France as the genius he perceived himself to be (and as many today now recognise), contemporaries made an exception for his enamels, seeing in him the reincarnation of Petitot, another Protestant Genevois whose exquisite distillations of the court of Louis XIV thrill us today. Thus Saint-Yves[1] (1748) was willing to lament the absence from the Louvre exhibitions at least of Liotard’s enamels, an art which the French had allowed to die since Petitot brought it to perfection:

On avoit laissé périr parmi nous un art que Petitau avoit porté à sa perfection, & que M. Liotard vient de nous rendre. Pourquoi le Public est il privé du plaisir d’en voir les ouvrages au Salon?

(We know also, from Liotard’s own autobiography, written in 1760, that the artist had borrowed and copied a Petitot enamel in his youth – while still at Geneva, before 1723: “Celui qui le lui avoit prêté étoit Peintre, & fut trompé en prenant la copie pour l’original.”)

Liotard as we know was not allowed into the salons du Louvre, and would exhibit instead at the Académie de Saint-Luc – pastels only in 1751 and 1753, mainly pastels but some drawings and one enamel – a self-portrait – in 1752. Moving to England soon after, he returned to the craft of enamelling once more. The process is elaborate and required equipment he would not always have had available during his travels, so it is unsurprising that he worked only occasionally in the medium.

Of course as always the first place to turn for anything about Liotard is the 2008 edition of Roethslisberger & Loche which reproduces all the enamels beautifully. Or not quite all – for one, cat. no. 387[2], has been missing since it was last mentioned in 1774. And thanks to a private collector with an excellent eye it has now been rescued, and appears with his kind permission at the top of this article.

Although the enamel itself is unsigned, it was found mounted in a late 18th century giltwood frame (probably French, 1770s), which has Liotard’s signature on the back:

Liotard Dormeuse v det 3

That takes us straight to the exhibitions and auction where Liotard tried to dispose of his collections – of old master pictures and of his own work, with catalogues that provide some complicated information which you need to turn to R&L to decipher. Notably the Christie’s sale of April 1774, where Lot 62 on the second day was “A lady sleeping, enamel”, estimated at £30. (It followed an enamel by Petitot, of Chancellor Le Tellier; the unanswerable question crosses one’s mind as to whether this might in fact be Liotard’s own copy with which he so proudly duped the owner of the original.) The Lady sleeping was recorded as sold to “Del.”, apparently an abbreviation of “Deleroux”, the name recorded against a dozen or so lots in the sale. But the Christie’s annotated sale catalogue is treacherous, as are the second-hand reports of the earlier selling exhibitions that Liotard organised in Paris and London. For example the Watteau painting which Liotard owned, Le Sommeil dangereux, was listed in his 1773 London exhibition with a price of 120 guineas – reported by Graves as the sale price.[3] It was then included in the Christie’s auction the following year, apparently being sold to the same Deleroux for 12 guineas, but in fact unsold. It was finally disposed of by Liotard’s son in 1788 for “un vil prix”. Deleroux was evidently a straw man, and the subsequent fate of the present enamel until its recent re-emergence remains a mystery.

But the catalogues for these exhibitions and sale do provide some crucial evidence: in the Paris 1771 show, the same item (no. 93) was “Une dormeuse, en émail, d’après Santerre. Par le même [Liotard]”.

Based on that alone, R&L speculated that the work might relate to a painting by Jean-Baptiste Santerre known from an engraving in 1711 by N. Château, of which an oil version had passed through Drouot. Fortunately Santerre’s work has been catalogued, by Claude Lesné (BSHAF, 1988): a number of genre pieces are known, several of which were engraved by Nicolas Château, and the new enamel does in fact correspond with Lesné’s no. 52, a Jeune femme dormant. The original is no longer known, but a number of copies have passed through the salerooms and there are oil versions in the musée Hyacinthe-Rigaud at Perpignan, where it is known as Femme turque endormie (apparently on account of the turban: there is little specifically Turkish about it, but it may nevertheless have caught Liotard’s fancy), and this version at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona:

Santerre Dormeuse MNAC Barcelona

We should not forget just how enormously popular these Santerre figures were at the time. He was perhaps the Rotari of his day. A passage in an article on Santerre by a marchand joaillier and picture dealer called Nicolas Malafaire in the Nouveau Mercure (September 1718, p. 73) explains, and might even refer to, this Santerre figure:

C’est dans ce tems-là, qu’il imagina de peindre seulement une demi-figure dans chaque Tableau, qui represtentât un art, une science, ou quelques actions naïves, ausquelles il sçut donner une finesse de pensées & d’expressions, qui lui étoit toute particuliere. La nouveauté & l’agrément, qui étoient dans ces Ouvrages, les firent estimer universellement, & donna l’envie à plusieurs d’en avoir: Mais, le Peintre employoit beaucoup de tems à les faire; c’est pourquoi on se les arrachoit, pour ainsi dire, des mains; & on les poussa à un prix si considerable, qu’une personne donna jusqu’à cent pistolles d’une seule demi-figure qui représentait une dormeuse.

But it is the Château engraving to which we should turn for a more explicit description of the erotic purpose of this image:

Chateau ar Santerre Dormeuse

Here are the verses (which there’s no need for me to translate):

Ne reveilléz point cette Belle
Marchéz doucement parlez bas;
Epouse encore toute nouvelle
Le repos nourrit ses apas

Fidelle au Dieu de L’hymenée
Elle veut en avoir son fruit;
Et ne dort pendant la journée
qu’afin de mieux veiller la nuit.

When did Liotard make the enamel, and from what source? The popularity of Santerre continued for a long time. Indeed one finds numerous pastel copies of another popular Santerre piece, known incorrectly as Mlle Desmares but again popularised by an engraving by Château, 1708; in 1763 Guillibaud even adapted the print, giving it a new face to produce a portrait of Mme Revilliod de La Rive (J.367.145). Even more proximate, yet another Santerre piece, La Géométrie – again known from numerous probably secondary versions (Darmstadt, Tours etc.), and a print, by Claude Bricart (1711) – was copied not once, but twice, by Liotard’s brother Jean-Michel. The drawing, dated 1762, is reproduced in R&L (cat. no. JML36, fig. 894); the pastel version which has recently surfaced on the art market (J.4912.101) is here:

LiotardJM Geometrie

R&L also note that in Liotard’s collection was a painting by Santerre of a Dame riant, perhaps more accurately known as La Menaceuse, the title under which it was probably exhibited in the salon of 1704. Again a picture of which numerous versions are known, the premier peintre Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre did not much like it when Liotard tried to sell it to the French royal collection, annotating the picture on Liotard’s list “Mauvais, a tout hazard”; Santerre it seems had fallen out of favour by 1785.

All of this suggests that Liotard’s enamel of La Dormeuse could have been made at any stage of his career. My own view however is that the work might well belong to the very earliest period when he was still in Geneva. This is based on the strong similarities with the only surviving enamel from that period, the Sélène et Endymion in the Musée de l’horlogerie de de l’émaillerie at Geneva (inv. E 137; R&L 7), signed and dated 1722:[4]

Liotard Selene et Endymion Geneve

This, as Hans Boeckh discovered, was based on a painting by Trevisani of which the original is in Kassel, and does not seem to have been in Geneva at the time Liotard’s enamel was made. Once again which version or print was copied eludes us. But what is clear is that, well before Liotard’s arrival in Paris, he had the skill to produce an extremely sophisticated work in a technically demanding medium. The artist to whom he was briefly apprenticed, Daniel Gardelle (1679–1753 – a distant relative through the Mussard family), specialised in miniatures on vellum but also worked in enamel (one example was jointly signed with his brother Robert): Liotard claimed in his autobiography that he stayed with Gardelle only four months, and already worked in miniature, enamel, oil and pastel. The Dormeuse, at 8.3×6.4cm, is on an enamel plaque of similar shape to the Selene (5.2×7.0): Sturm suggests that the latter may have been intended as the lid of a snuff box, but the orientation and case of the Dormeuse makes this less likely.

In any case this is a work which Liotard seems to have retained for half a century before it disappeared for another two and a half.


[1] Charles Léoffroy de Saint-Yves, Observations sur les arts et sur quelques morceaux de peinture et de sculpture, exposés au Louvre en 1748, où il est parlé de l’utilité des embellisements dans les villes, 1748, p. 114.

[2] Page 537 of R&L; the picture is also mentioned on pp. 143 and 426; without an image it was impossible to place it chronologically.

[3] The was reported, with doubts, in Glorieux’s 2006 survey of Watteau prices (Glorieux had not seen the 1773 catalogue and relied on Graves: there is a copy in the Frick, from which I prepared the entries in my exhibitions document on, but of course cleared up in R&L, p. 153. Nevertheless a very recently published museum catalogue failed to refer to R&L.

[4] In addition to R&L, there is a good account by Fabienne-Xavière Sturm in the Liotard 2002 exhibition catalogue, and of course Hans Boeckh’s account of the work in Genava, xxxvii, 1989, pp. 117–28. Sturm believed that Gardelle did not work in enamel, but R&L corrected this.

Postscript (10 December 2018)

The enamel was almost certainly purchased soon after the Christie’s sale by Liotard’s great patron, the future Lord Bessborough, as it appeared in his sale, 6 February 1801, Lot 8 (A girl sleeping, an enamel), sold 14 guineas (see R&L p. 162).

From → Art history

  1. Alastair Laing permalink

    What a wonderful rediscovery – and a fascinating article ! (but curious that Saint-Yves should have been unaware of Liotard’s ineligibility to exhibit at the Salon). Yesterday I chanced to see a curious large painting in Raf Valls’s exhibition, ‘Sex & Sensuality’ (not much of either, really ), given – rather optimistically, in my view – to Santerre, which shows a young female nude on a couch or bed lighting a fresh candle from one about to expire – surely also an instance of sexual symbolism, but of what ? – of a new lover replacing the exhausted one ?


    Alastair Laing

  2. Thanks for this Neil. What a beautiful enamel. For some reason the Liotard appears to me even more natural than the Santerre. Usually copies lose something. This one is exceptional. I always appreciate the quotations in their original 18th French. I wonder if they were pronounced as written? I always read them out loud using the ‘oit’ as in moi.


  3. I like to type them as I find them, rather than attempt to modernize and introduce new errors. The evolution of the French language is well beyond my competence: there are even suggestions that the old aristocratic pronunciation/spelling went out with the Revolution. A brief mention here:

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