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.