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Marcel Roethlisberger (1929–2020)

8 May 2020

Liotard Studientag_180116_014I’m not sure how many of you have noticed that it’s some ten months since I last posted on this blog. There were several reasons for this, the main one being that I’ve been very focused on my La Tour catalogue, and the surprising discovery I wrote about in my penultimate post (where I revealed that the famous self-portrait of La Tour in Amiens was, it turns out, a copy by a talented pupil) made me feel I should go through a rigorous period of thinking to get my story straight. I’ll shortly get back to using this blog now that I think I have done so.

But the very last post I made was – not for the first time – about Liotard. An artist who today is far more fashionable than La Tour, and with far greater influence measured in academic research or in saleroom prices. It was not so half a century ago. That it happened is largely due to Marcel Roethlisberger, an art historian whose death, at the beginning of March, may have passed unnoticed amid the present worldwide circumstances.

This isn’t the obituary he deserves, and will in due course receive in the proper places, but just some personal observations about this wonderful man whose enthusiasms were so inspirational. Because of the breadth of his interests an obituary would be a challenge to anyone, who, as so many of us do today, specialises in a single topic. The gulf between Claude and Liotard, the two artists with whom Marcel Roethlisberger’s name is instantly associated, belong to completely different worlds. Indeed when he visited my house some fifteen years ago, perhaps expecting to find some pastel I might want to associate with Liotard, I can remember his delight (and perhaps relief) when instead he found an etching by Claude… from an earlier stage in my own collecting interests.

Roethlisberger was born in Zurich in 1929. As a lexicographer I felt a duty when we first met to quiz him about the umlaut and its transformation – not least because it affected where he appeared in my bibliography – and, much to my surprise (most people are passionate about the “correct” spelling of their name), found him hugely relaxed about the matter. He had an enormously broad education – of a kind that students today never enjoy – at the universities of Bern, Cologne, Paris (where he was a pupil of André Chastel), Florence (Roberto Longhi) and Pisa studying economics, law, archaeology and music before specialising in the history of art. That brought him to the Courtauld under Anthony Blunt, 1954–56 (long after my mother). His thesis, awarded by the university of Bern, was on Jacopo Bellini. But it was Blunt, the Poussin specialist, who encouraged his interest in Claude. His two-volume Claude Lorrain: the paintings appeared in 1961. There followed a distinguished career teaching in a number of the most prestigious American universities – Yale, Princeton, UCLA – where he was a full professor by 1968, when he published his catalogue raisonné of Claude’s drawings. Two years later he took up the chair in Geneva. There were several subsequent visiting appointments in the US (Washington, the Getty etc.). He published a major work on Bloemaert in 1993, demonstrating again the breadth of his interests.

But it was his research on Liotard that I knew best. He worked closely on the artist with Renée Loche, who was conservateur at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva until 1992. Their collaboration was astonishingly fruitful. Perhaps this was in part due to the hands-on interest in the objects themselves which museum curators have deeply ingrained, but which academic art historians occasionally lack. However it developed, Roethlisberger’s work on Liotard was never lost in theory, and never departed from the works of art themselves. Roethlisberger had written briefly about Liotard in an article on Swiss self-portraits in Florence in 1956, while Loche had become focused on Liotard with several exhibitions in Geneva in the early 1970s. But their joint publication, L’opera completa di Liotard, published by Rizzoli in 1978 in the rather limiting format of the Classici dell’arte series, that transformed interest in the artist. It coincided with the first major acquisition, for a very substantial price, by an American museum (Cleveland) of a Liotard pastel, the hugely important portrait of François Tronchin dans son cabinet (below; J.49.2329 in my Dictionary), the forerunner of a number of subsequent purchases of Liotard pastels for previously unheard of prices. (I know Roethlisberger would have had as little interest in such measures as I do, but I know too that many of you will find this strand of interest.)


The old Loche & Roethlisberger was astonishingly useful, but its tiny reproductions didn’t tell the whole story. Conscious of that, and aware too of the explosion of Liotard research (Roethlisberger alone had published a dozen articles since 1978), the new catalogue – this time Roethlisberger & Loche – appeared in 2008 in a format that made up in every way possible for the deficiencies of L&R. I reviewed it in the Burlington Magazine in May 2009, so I won’t comment in detail. But one sentence is perhaps worth repeating:

Though we are reminded that ‘l’art de Liotard dépasse toujours les limites de l’analyse verbale’, it is impossible to read these essays without responding to the authors’ evident love and appreciation of their subject.

In some ways my review was rather severe (in a later note I referred to “the wonderful Roethlisberger & Loche catalogue raisonné (of which I can only say that my admiration increases every time I consult it – a comment I couldn’t really include in my Burlington Magazine review which was published immediately after it appeared)”), but it is a measure of his magnanimity that when I later discussed it with him, Roethlisberger was very happy to follow up all the points I had raised. Our correspondence followed freely as we exchanged discoveries and trouvailles on so many points, a flood of information none of which would have been discovered were it not for the huge advances in L&R and R&L. An update, “Liotard mis à jour”, written with typical generosity, appeared in Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte in 2014 (it deserves to be more widely consulted). It included a typical example of a work which he had once rejected but was prepared to reconsider after a thorough debate which resulted in a more convincing narrative.

In 2018 we were both invited to a study day in Dresden while the gallery was preparing for the Liotard exhibition that took place later that year. The photo above shows us both looking rather carefully at one of the best-loved works of the Swiss master. I can’t think of a better way to share my appreciation of a man who has inspired so many with his scholarship, breadth of culture, openness and humanity.



From → Art history

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