Voltaire and Liotard: the missing portrait(s)

In one of the letters recounting his travels around Europe, Johann III Bernoulli describes the events of a bitterly cold day in Geneva in November 1774. The day begins with a meeting with Voltaire’s publisher Cramer, and an offer to be taken to visit the great man, followed by a walk around town and an unexpected meeting with an old man in Turkish dress. Bernoulli correctly guesses that this is the painter Jean-Etienne Liotard, [1] famed for the truthfulness of his portraits and the exquisite depiction of his subjects’ dress.

Voltaire refers to this portrait (c.1759) of Mme d’Epinay in his letter to Jean Linant of 22 February 1760: ‘Je remercie à deux genoux la philosophe qui met son doigt sur son menton, et qui a un petit air penché que lui a fait Liotard; son âme est aussi belle que ses yeux’ (D8770). The portrait is now at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

Voltaire refers to this portrait (c.1759) of Mme d’Epinay in his letter to Jean Linant of 22 February 1760: ‘Je remercie à deux genoux la philosophe qui met son doigt sur son menton, et qui a un petit air penché que lui a fait Liotard; son âme est aussi belle que ses yeux’ (D8770). The portrait is now at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

Indeed, these two famous men both spent the last decades of their lives in or near Geneva. Visiting the Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy, I was struck by Voltaire’s absence. The portraits of so many people that he knew (Fawkener, Algarotti, Théodore Tronchin…) are there. I found myself wondering what a Voltaire portrait by Liotard might have looked like and thinking that Liotard would have done true justice to Voltaire’s dressing gown.

A quick look at Voltaire’s correspondence (in particular a letter from Madame Denis to the comte d’Argental dated 7 June 1758) reveals that he surely was depicted by Liotard. Erich Bachmann tentatively attributes a pastel portrait of a middle-aged Voltaire in Wilhelmine’s music room in the Neues Schloss in Bayreuth to Liotard. [2] But what of any Liotard portraits of an older Voltaire in the Geneva and Ferney years? Bachmann offers a possible explanation in unvarnished terms: since ‘Liotard is sure to have painted the old man’s toothless face with all its disgusting details in those late portraits’, Voltaire, ‘jealous as he was of his reputation and of his posthumous face’, would have been careful to remove it from Ferney (‘An unknown portrait’, p.135).

Reproductions do not do justice to Liotard’s pastels, so do try and see the exhibition at the Royal Academy before 31 January 2016. And if anyone ever stumbles across a portrait of a toothless old man in a gorgeously embroidered dressing gown, I want to know about it.

– Alice

[1] ‘Hier 23. j’ai commencé ma journée par une visite pour affaires à M. Cramer le fameux libraire, un des hommes les plus aimables et les plus aimés à Genève; il m’a offert de me mener souper et coucher chez M. de Voltaire; car dans cette saison on ne peut voir cet homme célèbre que le soir; mais la rigueur du froid qui se fait sentir actuellement et mon prochain départ m’obligent malgré moi de remettre cette agréable partie jusqu’à mon retour.

J’ai fait ensuite un tour dans les rues basses, et un très grand tour autour des fortifications qui m’ont paru considérables; j’ai vu aller en patins dans le fossé près de la porte de la rive; dans cette promenade j’ai rencontré un vieux homme en habit turc; j’ai pensé que ce pouvait être le célèbre peintre Liotard et c’était lui; je suis fâché que le temps ne me permette pas de faire mieux la connaissance et de voir chez lui de ses beaux ouvrages ou du moins une petite collection de tableaux qu’on me dit qu’il s’est formé’ (Lettres sur différents sujets, écrites pendant le cours d’un voyage par l’Allemagne, la Suisse, la France méridionale et l’Italie; en 1774 et 1775, vol.2, Berlin, 1777, p.9-10).

[2] Erich Bachmann, ‘An unknown portrait of Voltaire by Jean Etienne Liotard?’, SVEC 62 (1968), p.123-36. The portrait is reproduced as the frontispiece to the volume and in the bottom left-hand corner of the second page of Neil Jeffares’ entry on the ‘Bayreuth pastellist’ in his Dictionary of pastellists before 1800. (For another Liotard-related frontispiece, see volume 11 of the Correspondance générale de la Beaumelle.)

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