Every 7-year-old looks beautiful to eyes past a certain age. So it’s hard to say whether this 18th-century portrait by Jean-Étienne Liotard is of a particularly lovely 7-year-old or whether it’s just a particularly lovely picture. I’m going with the latter. Anyone can see it: The level of artistry is astonishing.
The medium is not paint but pastel, which Liotard (1702-1789) came as close as anyone to perfecting. Pastel is powdery and sensitive to light, so for its own good, this portrait spends a lot of time in storage. But I’ve noticed that when I visit the Getty and it’s on display, it’s always surrounded by sighing admirers.
Liotard died the year the French Revolution broke out. He spent his peak years flitting around Europe fulfilling portrait commissions for the royal families, popes, cardinals and aristocrats.
The son of a jeweler, Liotard grew up in the proudly independent city-state of Geneva, where he trained as a miniaturist. He was a contemporary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, like the great philosopher, moved from Geneva to Paris, where he studied portraiture.
In 1738, Liotard traveled to Constantinople (Istanbul). He stayed there for four years, perfecting his pastel technique with pictures of local domestic scenes. When he came back, he kept an eccentrically full beard and continued wearing Turkish clothing, earning him the nickname “the Turkish painter.” He made portraits of subjects including his Dutch wife and Rousseau in “exotic” Eastern costumes at a time when fashion was regarded as an integral aspect of good portraiture.
At some point, Liotard also developed an intense love of the color blue. All of his best pictures hinge, chromatically, on pure shades that hover somewhere between sky and royal blue. Here, Maria Frederike wears a rich blue cape with a white fur trim. Slightly lighter hues of the same color can be found in her hair ribbons, her dress, the collar of the little dog she cradles like a doll and her eyes.
Up close, you can see how Liotard used both the texture of the vellum surface and the opaque, subtly layered and slightly granular pastel to imitate the look of skin, with its pores and shadows and highlights. The delicate striations of diagonal highlights on the girl’s rosy right cheek give it a palpable luster. And the set of the child’s lips against her skin is realized so sensitively that you cannot conceive that so much soft, dimpled vitality depends for its underlying structure on something as ghastly as a skull.
Notice, above all, her eyes. They seem to have noticed something, and to react with a kind of tender calm, verging on disinterested amusement. Few things are as moving as youthful self-possession. Meanwhile, the little dog — possibly a Japanese Chin? (I defer to the dog experts) — stares out of the picture with doggy bemusement.
Great Works, In Focus
A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.” He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.