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I paid a visit to the Jean Etienne Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which is on until 31 January in the Sackler Wing, Burlington House. Liotard (1702-89) worked largely as a portraitist across Enlightenment Europe. Born in Geneva, he travelled widely, working at times for the British, French and Austrian royal families. More unusually, his exploration of the Near East and the Ottoman Empire gave him a fascination with Oriental costume and a nickname, “the Turk”. This is the first sole exhibition of Liotard’s work in the UK, and includes over 70 works.

Liotard worked largely in pastels, which makes him very different from other artists that I am familiar with. His portraits have fantastic detail and he was clearly a very accomplished artist, but to my eye there is something slightly flat about them: I missed the depth that oil paintings have. The exceptions are Liotard’s self-portraits and the pictures of his family and friends, which reveal sensitivity and depth. I particularly liked the unusual Self-Portrait Laughing from c. 1770.

I did notice that the pictures included a lot of blue, and I wondered why. Perhaps blue was just a common colour of the clothes of the period, or perhaps Liotard wanted to make the pictures look expensive: I know that in terms of oil paint, blue shades were particularly expensive, so perhaps using pastel was a way to get this effect without the cost. However, this is just conjecture.

This was an interesting and unusual exhibition, well worth seeing, and rather enlightening.

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