Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast
By Yoyo Hou
This exhibition ‘Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast’ spotlights ‘the most lavish game of spot-the-difference’[MOU1] ―two almost identical works are now hung on the wall side by side in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery (fig 1). For the first time in 200 years, we see the rare reunion of the pastel original and oil replica of the work the Lavergne Family Breakfast by the Swiss artist Jean Etienne Liotard (1702-1789). The exhibition offers us a superb visual sensation along with an exploration of the medium of pastel. Encompassing the European aristocratic aesthetic in the 18th century, it also illustrates the journey of the Liotard’s life. [MOU2]
Fig. 1: top left and right: Jean Etienne Liotard, detail of the Lavergne Family Breakfast,1754, pastel on paper, mounted on canvas.
Bottom left and right: Liotard, detail of the work’s oil replica, about 1764, oil on canvas.
Both works are now on display at the National Gallery.
Before revealing any painting or drawing, the exhibition starts by introducing pastel. As we enter the narrow corridor before the main room, in a low glass cabinet, a box of Henri Roche pastels, a colour chart and a porte-crayon (chalk holder) (fig. 2 and 3) play the prelude of the exhibition. Opposite these art supplies, a muted video [MOU3] outlines the intricate process of the making of crayon in 18th century France: from weighing, mixing, kneading, and cutting, to stamping, drying, waiting, and boxing. Quietly and steadily, the video invites us to step inside the pastel atelier , where Liotard bought his art supplies. Then, as we turn our heads to the right, a bigger, brighter room is waiting for us to delve into this material further.
Fig 2: a box of Henri Roche pastels, made in Paris and probably dating to the 1910s.
Fig. 3: Colour chart from La Maison du Pastel, Paris, 1930s; a box of charcoal sticks, 19th century; a porte-crayon (chalk-holder).
The two immediate works in the main exhibition room are a pair of artworks hung side by side, one in pastel, one in oil (fig.4). They mark [MOU4] the highlight of this show, The Lavergne Family Breakfast (1754).
Fig. 4: right: Jean Etienne Liotard, the Lavergne Family Breakfast, 1754, pastel on paper, mounted on canvas. Left: the oil replica, about 1774, oil on canvas. Both works are now on display at the National Gallery.
Both works depict the same scene of the polite morning routine of an aristocratic lady having breakfast with a little girl wearing paper curlers in her hair, still with her eyes half-closed. On the table rest a metal coffee pot and pewter, the lady’s thumb gently presses the lid of a milk jug, and to her proper left the little girl dips her bread crust into her milky coffee in fine painted ceramic. In the pastel work (fig. 5), the entire scene is suffused with a sense of misty softness, as we can feel the warmth and aroma of butter and coffee in the room. The pastel is rubbed, smeared, and blended to achieve painterly effects, millions of particles of coloured dust cling to the paper's surface. Liotard’s rendering of the luminously soft skin is exceptional, yet the clarity of the outlines[MOU5] further communicates the artist’s unique skill. Despite the smudginess of the medium, Liotard had acute precision in composing clean forms. In the oil replica he made some twenty years later (fig. 6), Liotard emulates the pastel in remarkable detail. With a higher contrast and saturation than the original, every part of the painting is crisper and sharper than the work next to it, especially with the gleaming coffee pot with thick impasto reflections. The thin veil in front of our eyes when looking at the pastel picture has been removed; we see a clearer world with even more detail. It is intriguing how the two works are put together for us to examine carefully, leading us to feel the artist’s technical virtuosity, as well as the crucial role that different materials play in generating different visual effects.
Fig. 5: Liotard, the Lavergne Family Breakfast,1754, pastel on paper, mounted on canvas.
Fig. 6: the oil replica, about 1774.
Next to the Lavergne Family Breakfast, we see a smaller scale painting in oil―Still Life: Tea Set (fig. 7) with the masterful rendering of light and detail. A work of enjoyment, it also epitomises Liotard’s fidelity to porcelain.[MOU6] [MOU7] Liotard depicts an unusually lively scene of still-life―the set of export Chinese porcelain with teacups toppled and teaspoons facing different directions―as if the guests have just left the scene. Everything is gently illuminated by a subtle warm light, yet Liotard’s clever handling of texture also bestows this elegant painting with a sense of realism. The tender lustre of the glazed surface of the tea ware makes a distinction from the crispiness of the metal spoons, as well as the possibly copper tray reflecting the objects on top. Apart from the comparison between oil and pastel by the Lavergne Family Breakfast, the sophisticated elegance of Still Life: Tea Set evokes another focus of this exhibition: the artist’s personal obsession with porcelain and the European 18th century taste of drinking tea.
Fig. 7: Jean Etienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, about 1781-3, oil on canvas mounted on board. Now on display at the National Gallery.
The curator’s choice to display a real Japanese Imari-ware cup and saucer (fig.8) depicted in the Lavergne Family Breakfast next to the painting further contextualises the artwork. Alongside with the pastels in the entrance, the cooperation between tangible objects and paintings sparks our interest to explore more.
Fig. 8: Japanese Imari-ware cup and saucer, porcelain, about 1690-1720, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, now on display at the National Gallery.
Another thread in this exhibition is the timeline of the artist’s life. We see a map tracing most of the places Liotard explored and lived during his lifetime―from Geneva to Constantinople, from Lyon to London. In his thirties, Liotard spent four years in Constantinople and completed several portraits (fig. 9). His journey [MOU8] had a crucial effect on the artist’s later aesthetic style and taste; on his return to Western Europe, he donned Turkish dress and called himself a Turkish painter. Liotard’s 1755 commissioned portrait of Lady Anne Somerset (fig.10) with the English Courtress wearing a Turkish garment, was directly inspired by his drawing Woman from Constantinople (fig. 11). Utilising the the chalky texture of pastel, Liotard delineates the luminous quality of the figure’s skin, corresponding with the calm, confident gaze, accentuating a sense of sophistication. The Turkish garment worn by the courtress makes the aristocratic portrait unique amongst the others with sitters in a typical European garb, [MOU9] and it also suggests a personal mark of the highly desired artist of the time.
Fig. 9: Liotard, A Grand Vizir, about 1741, pastel on parchment. The National Gallery.
Left: Liotard, Lady Anne Somerset, 1755, pastel on vellum.
Right: Liotard, Woman from Constantinople sitting on a Divan, 1738-42, black and red chalk on paper. Now on display at the National Gallery.
‘Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Breakfast’ is an exhibition that is worth a visit. With the limited space of one room and an entering corridor, it is impressive how the exhibition encapsulates parallel themes simultaneously on the materiality of pastel and oil, and the 18th-century aesthetic and taste through the narration of the artist’s life. Apart from the wall texts contextualising the artworks, the cooperation between tangible objects and the 2D paintings throughout the whole exhibition is a real success; we get an immersive retrospect of the artist’s aesthetic preference as well as the process of art-making. Ultimately, it is a unique chance to engage and appreciate the very beauty of Liotard’s works, which can only be truly felt when you see them in person.
 Eddy Frankel, “‘Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast’ at the National Gallery Review,” Time Out London, March 3, 2024, https://www.timeout.com/london/art/discover-liotard-and-the-lavergne-family-breakfast.