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Jean Etienne Liotard

(1702–1789, Geneva)

Small Self-portrait. Mezzotint, etching and roulette. 21 x 16.7 cm. Circa 1781. Tilanus 9, Roethlisberger/Loche 523.

The present self-portrait is a smaller, revised version of Liotard’s Large Self-portrait, his undisputed masterpiece (Tilanus 8, Roethlisberger/Loche 522). Both depictions derive from a pastel and a charcoal drawing with colour heightening probably made by the artist some time between 1770 and 1773. They are now in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva. Liotard added the same caption to the Small Self-portrait which is also to be found in the second state of the larger design (“N.° 1 Gravé par lui-même I. E. Liotard./ Effet. Clair obscur sans sacrifice.”). Both versions were intended to serve as illustrations in Liotard’s treatise Du Clair-obscur published in 1781.

While the Large Self-portrait seems very unconventional not just because of its highly personal self-presentation but also in technical respects, the present smaller variation appears even more radically experimental. In contrast to the large version, which creates a softer and more velvety impression, the dis­tinguishing feature of the small version is the much rougher use of roulette and rocker, which produces an unusual fishbone pattern especially in the background of the portrait. The artist has used the drypoint to produce certain highlights and has highlighted the patches of light by means of careful scratch­ing and polishing, thus achieving a striking chiaroscuro effect. Liotard was something of a dilettante as a printmaker, the rudimentary power of his technique contrasting starkly with the work of contemporary English engravers, who turned mezzotint into a fine art. But it is the absolute originality of approach which makes Liotard’s self-portraits masterpieces of European printmaking.

A fine impression with traces of a thread margin around the platemark, to which it is trimmed on the left and right. Minor ageing, otherwise in excellent condition. Literature: Rena M. Hoisington, “Etching as a Vehicle for Innovation: Four Exceptional Peintres-Graveurs”, in: Perrin Stein, Artists and Amateurs. Etching in 18th-century France, exhib. Cat. New York, The Metropolitan Museum, New York 2013, pp. 68–101.

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