Great Art in America: An Extraordinary Pastel Portrait

At The Cleveland Museum of Art

Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard made extraordinary pastel paintings, one of which can be seen at The Cleveland Museum of Art.
Great Art in America: An Extraordinary Pastel Portrait
“François Tronchin,” 1757, by Jean-Etienne Liotard. Pastel on parchment; 14 15/16 inches by 18 1/4 inches. John L. Severance Fund; The Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)
Lorraine Ferrier

One of Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard’s favorite pastel portraits was of the Genevan magistrate, playwright, and art collector François Tronchin.

Liotard rendered Tronchin in a powdered wig, a black dress coat, and a white shirt with lace cuffs, sitting at a table arranged with a book, music manuscripts, and measuring instruments used in architecture. He gestures as if to present the painting on the easel to us—his proudest acquisition: Rembrandt’s “A Woman in Bed.” Experts differ on the subject matter of the Dutch master’s painting, but some believe he depicted the Biblical story of the newly wed Sarah watching her bridegroom, Tobias, chase a demon away.

Tronchin had an ardent passion for art (and even helped Catherine II of Russia form the foundation of the collection at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg). The collector chose well when he asked Liotard to paint his portrait, as the artist rendered a luminous portrait, with exquisite detailing such as the wig’s crisp curls, the sitter’s delicate skin, and the faithful copy of Rembrandt’s painting, while also showing Tronchin’s passion for the art. It’s no wonder that Liotard saw it as one of his finest works.

Liotard (1702–1789) first trained as a miniaturist in Geneva and then as a portraitist in Paris. In his lifetime, he was a pastelist known across Europe for creating intimate and illuminating paintings. (He also created in oil, chalk, and enamel.) His often candid paintings were highly regarded in the courts of London, Vienna, Paris, and The Hague, and he commanded high prices for his commissions.

He worked in the golden age of pastel painting, according to Christie's. Although pastels had been around since the Renaissance, it wasn’t until the 18th century, initially in France, that the medium became popular.

Pastels use the same pigments as oil paints but are mixed with a binder and made into sticks. They appealed to the growing middle-class clientele as a cheaper alternative to oil paints. Plus, the immediacy of pastels allowed the artist to capture fleeting expressions almost as quickly as they happened, as opposed to waiting for a layer of oil paint to slowly dry.

While the powdery nature of pastels made the paintings fragile, the refraction of light on the powder created the most luminous pictures. Pastel paintings have kept their color saturation more often than oil paintings, since pastel paintings cannot be varnished, which often discolors or damages the oil paint.

Jean-Etienne Liotard’s pastel portrait “François Tronchin” can be seen at The Cleveland Museum of Art. To find out more, visit
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Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.
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