Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

0034 Hannah Williams, A Phenomenology of Vision: the Self-Portraits of Jean-Étienne Liotard

RIHA Journal 0034 | 30 January 2012

A Phenomenology of Vision: the Self-Portraits of Jean-Étienne Liotard*

Hannah Williams

Editing and peer review managed by

Caroline Arscott, Courtauld Institute of Art, London


Emma Barker, Richard Taws


This essay analyses the self-portraits of Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789). Interpreting these objects through the lens of Maurice-Merleau-Ponty's writings on art and vision, I argue that Liotard's self-portraits can be understood as artistic experiments relating to the fundamental phenomenological problem of seeing and representing the lived-body. In making this argument this essay re-evaluates the art-historical tendency to read Liotard's self-portraits biographically as pictures of his unusual life or as tools of self-promotion.


'It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body – not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.'

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1961)1

'One must never paint anything that one cannot see …'

Jean-Étienne Liotard (1781)2


  1. Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789) was a prolific self-portraitist. Throughout his career he made more than twenty self-representations, mostly in pastel, but also in oil, chalk, enamels, miniatures and mezzotints.3 Compared to some modern artists for whom the self has become the primary object of their work, twenty self-portraits may not sound particularly remarkable, but when compared with the œuvres of his contemporaries, Liotard's interest in himself as a subject starts to look like an obsession. At a time when artists tended to confine their output to a particular specialism (history painting, portraiture, landscape, still life etc.), many eighteenth-century artists went their entire careers without ever painting a portrait, let alone a self-portrait. Even among the great portraitists of the day, the self was not always a subject of much interest: Louis Tocqué (1696-1772) never painted a self-portrait, and Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766) and Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715-1783) each painted only one. Indeed Liotard was rivalled in quantity perhaps only by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788), but while La Tour's (always pastel) self-portraits are characterized by variety in pose and the pursuit of lively expression, most of Liotard's self-representations are better described as repetitive (despite his engagement with various media) as he reworked compositions and revisited distinctive costumes time and time again.

  2. Faced with the question of why Liotard produced so many self-portraits, most scholars have looked for answers in biography. And frankly, given Liotard's bizarre life and career, it is no wonder. Born in Geneva in 1702, Liotard came to Paris in 1727 to work as an apprentice with the academician Jean-Baptiste Massé, staying until 1735, when, according to Pierre-Jean Mariette, he made an unsuccessful attempt to compete for the Académie royale's prix de Rome.4 Following this failure, Liotard became something of an itinerant, travelling first to Italy and then Constantinople and Moldova in his efforts to launch a career.5 Then, before his return to Western Europe in the 1740s, Liotard underwent the physical and sartorial transformation that would assure his future notoriety, growing a beard and donning oriental garments to refashion himself as the soon-to-be famous 'peintre turc'. Causing a sensation wherever he went – Vienna, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Geneva – Liotard established a reputation as a fashionable portrait painter, counting royalty and other influential figures among his clientele.6

  3. Given the dominance of life over art in Liotard's historiography, it is not surprising that scholars have tended to view his self-portraits as so many 'chapters of a mémoire', recounting the narrative of his career through costume changes.7 Nor is this an unworthy line of inquiry, for Liotard's life and art certainly appear enmeshed in his self-portraits. Through sale, gift, public exhibition and reproduction, the circulation of these works became, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau has argued, the means by which Liotard actively propagated a particular artistic identity as they carried the image of the 'peintre turc' across Europe.8 Promoting his unique selling point as the exotically cross-dressed artist, Liotard's 'Turkish' self-portraits clearly had a practical function from which he profited significantly. But this biographical emphasis tells only part of the story. The tendency to conflate self-portraiture with autobiography or to read self-portraits as presentations of self has distorted our understanding of these objects as works of art. In this light, they are seen problematically, as both Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and Mary Sheriff have pointed out, either as efforts to rehearse or reinforce Liotard's sartorial or professional self-redefinition, or as little more than commercial promotion.9 Moving us beyond the autobiographical, both Lajer-Burcharth and Sheriff have looked to psychology in their analyses of Liotard's trans-cultural self-portraits, exploring 'cosmopolitanism' and 'dislocation' to examine his cultural crossings. Their re-interpretations offer valuable insights into our understanding of Liotard's 'Turkish' self-portraits, but what of his self-portrait practice more broadly? How do we explain Liotard's enduring interest in himself as subject before, during and after his heyday as the 'peintre turc' and how do we account for those repetitions and revisitings, and the often strange appearance of his body within these works?

  4. The objects themselves tell a different story. When Liotard's self-portraits are viewed as a group, it is evident from his preoccupations and repetitions that Liotard was attempting to work through certain representational problems. For self-portraiture in fact posed a fundamental challenge to Liotard. This was an artist for whom the task of painting was not to invent, improvise or idealize, but rather to study nature and represent the world as it appeared before his eyes. 'One must never paint anything that one cannot see', he asserted in his treatise on painting.10 Liotard's artistic pursuit of visual exactness was decisively challenged by the act of painting a self-portrait, that representational feat constrained by the phenomenological impossibility of directly seeing one's own body – the unique property of le corps propre, to invoke Maurice Merleau-Ponty.11 To claim, as I want to, that in his self-portraits Liotard was grappling with that fundamental phenomenological challenge of self-seeing, might seem somewhat anachronistic for a period that not only pre-dated such formulations of the phenomenology of perception, but also did not even have a distinct linguistic signifier for a 'self-portrait'. The word 'autoportrait' did not appear in French dictionaries until 1928.12 When Liotard painted a self-portrait, he was not painting 'un autoportrait' (with all its self-reflexive, auto- connotations), but rather 'un portrait de l'artiste peint par lui-même' – a portrait of the artist painted by himself.13 The language employed is not incidental. For Liotard, the self-portrait was not conceived as an introspective act, nor just as a presentation of a social identity, but first, foremost and always as the physiological and perceptual process of 'painting himself'.

  5. Before Merleau-Ponty's writings explored the phenomenological conundrum of self-representation, Liotard's self-portraits stand testament to the artist's experimentations with this very particular experience of being at once subject and object, a process with which he seems to have become increasingly concerned throughout his career. By returning the art historical inquiry to Liotard's body, by, as Merleau-Ponty implores us, going back to the artist's 'working, actual body – [… that] intertwining of vision and movement', we can start to understand Liotard's self-portraits in terms of the artistic process of bringing the world bodily into representation.14 In this essay, I examine a selection of Liotard's self-portraits to explore the development of his engagement with the genre, offering an alternative interpretation of these works based on close visual analysis of the objects and using the artist's writings as a guide to understand the artistic projects he set himself. Seeing through the lens of Merleau-Ponty's writings on art and vision, I argue that Liotard's self-portraits be approached not as pictures of his life, but as artistic experiments with the fundamental phenomenological problem of seeing and representing le corps propre.


Seeing himself from start to finish

  1. Liotard's interest in himself as a subject and object for his art was prolonged but not always consistent. He made his earliest self-portrait during his late twenties in Paris (Fig. 1) and his last as an old man in his eighties in Geneva (Fig. 2).15 In the biographical readings of his self-portraits, these two works become the bookends of his life: the ambitious beginnings of his artistic career in the French capital and its quiet, contented conclusion back in the city of his birth. But what if these works are considered not as the bookends of a life, but as different developmental stages in Liotard's approach to self-portraiture, that is, as his first and final experiments in representing himself?16 Viewed in this way, what we see is not so much Liotard's aging face or his increasingly casual appearance, but rather a shift in his artistic concerns with self-portraiture as a genre, a shift that might be characterized as moving from self-presentation to self-representation.

1 Jean-Étienne Liotard, Self-Portrait, c. 1731-1733, oil on canvas, 46 x 37 cm. Private Collection (after Roethlisberger and Loche, Liotard, 2, Fig. 20)

2 Jean-Étienne Liotard, Self-Portrait 'dessiné et dessinant', c. 1782, black and white chalk on paper, 54 x 43 cm. © Musée d'art et d'histoire, Geneva, Cabinet d'arts graphiques, inv. 1984-129 (Photo: Nathalie Sabato)

  1. Liotard's first self-portrait (Fig. 1), with its bust-length format, takes a standard form for self-portraiture in early eighteenth-century France. Liotard shows himself here more as a young gentleman than a young artist; with the absence of hands, tools and painterly props, there is no artistic action and nothing to indicate Liotard's profession, let alone his role as the maker of the object. Intent on inscribing social status above and beyond even artistic identity, this could be a portrait of any young gentleman dressed in wig, suit and jabot, with only the sitter's fixed self-reflexive gaze (what T. J. Clark calls the 'look' of self-portraiture) hinting at its object-status as a self-portrait.17 By the time of Liotard's final self-portrait (Fig. 2), however, everything has changed. Instead of the routine bust, Liotard has drawn a full-length image, a much rarer choice for self-portraits in the period. Sitting in a chair and sketching on a drawing board, it is now Liotard's body that has become the subject of the work – not just the body as a vehicle for communicating social identity, but the body as the working, active, living corps creating this image. This is a self-reflexive depiction of the corporeal experience of self-representation, which the artist referred to as himself 'dessiné et dessinant' (drawn and drawing).18 Liotard's direct 'look' remains the sign of self-portraiture, but it is now contextualized as only one of the bodily actions involved, inseparable from those other processes. Liotard's different concerns in the later image also explain another of its distinctive features, namely the artist's evident lack of interest in 'correcting' what he sees. The floor tips awkwardly behind him and seems to curve where it meets the wall; the parallelogram of his drawing board is slightly too acute to be an abstraction of a rectangle seen on that angle; and his crossed leg defies anatomical correctness as it seems to bend the wrong way as though from a joint in his calf. This is a representation of Liotard's vision of himself, not necessarily as he was, but as he saw himself. Taken as two moments in Liotard's artistic practice, the first and final self-portraits indicate a shift in what Liotard was trying to do (and how he was trying to see): from the 1730s, when Liotard was visualising an image of himself to be seen by someone else, to the 1780s, when he was attempting to visualize his own vision.

  2. Only a year before Liotard drew this final self-portrait, he produced a different kind of self-reflexive look at his artistic practice in his Traité des principes et des règles de la peinture (1781). The Traité was a manual, intended 'for young artists', in which Liotard elaborated certain technical and aesthetic theories.19 Beginning with an essay that outlined his notion of the aesthetic principles of painting, Liotard then went on to expound twenty rules that offered the technical means of achieving those aesthetic ideals, usually phrased as imperative commands such as 'Peignez nettement, proprement et uniment' or 'Evitez de peindre les objets que la peinture ne peut bien imiter'.20 Not conceived for oral presentation, unlike the majority of eighteenth-century artists' writings (e.g. the Conférences of the Académie royale or Joshua Reynolds' Discourses), Liotard's Traité was rather a handbook intended to be read and followed, designed 'to trace the path [that young artists] must follow, if they wish to attain perfection'.21 For our purposes then, the Traité offers crucial insights into how, by the end of his career, Liotard had come to envisage his painting practice and what he imagined he was doing when he made a work of art. Of course, what Liotard did and what Liotard said he did are two different things not to be conflated, but his writings nevertheless reveal how his artistic interests had developed and how he conceptualised his task as an artist.

  3. What is most striking in Liotard's Traité is his constant drive for visual exactness, which pervades his theories of painting and his technical rules alike, and which ran so contrary to conventions of art theory during this period. He advocates an approach to painting in which the imitation of nature is the ultimate goal, to be achieved by painting with minute attention to detail (Rules 11 and 12), by eliminating visible traces of the artist's touch (Rule 7), and by avoiding taking as a subject anything that painting is not capable of rendering, like rays of sunlight or glass (Rule 13).22 Throughout the Traité, Liotard reveals a keen interest in the visual relationship between painting and nature, that is, between the object in the world and its representation on a flat surface. Describing painting as 'the immutable mirror' of nature, Liotard conceived of this relationship as a translation-like process in which the natural world was to be reflected in paint.23 In startling contrast to the prevailing aesthetic theories of the day, Liotard thus privileged imitation over invention. While Reynolds in his Discourses declared that 'Nature herself is not to be too closely copied' for 'it is not the eye, […but] the mind, which the painter of genius desires to address', Liotard saw the goal of painting otherwise.24 Indeed, painting was unique as an art form, he claimed, not because of its appeal to the intellect, but because of its ability to reproduce 'all that it sees'.25

  4. Liotard's notion of painting as an imitative translation of nature was not just a theoretical position, but also a practical concern, which was frequently noted by his contemporaries in their encounters with his works, some more positively than others. Liotard's imitations earned him the nickname the 'painter of truth', but they also incurred bitter critiques.26 In his Anecdotes, Horace Walpole saw Liotard's painterly imitations as a misguided fault in his practice:

Devoid of imagination, and one would think of memory, he could render nothing but what he saw before his eyes. Freckles, marks of the small-pox, everything found its place; not so much through fidelity, as because he could not conceive the absence of anything that appeared to him.27

  1. Liotard's desire to paint only what he could see was, for Walpole, incomprehensible, and the artist's works suffered for his inability to invent or idealize: 'He cannot paint a blue ribband if a lady is dressed in purple knots'.28 For Reynolds, Liotard's offense of visual exactness was enough to mark him as an amateur, as he allegedly remarked:

The only merit in Liotard's pictures is neatness, […] the characteristic of a low genius, or rather no genius at all. His pictures are just what ladies do when they paint for their amusement.29

  1. What Liotard's critics saw as a lack of skill or misdirection was, as his Traité explains, actually a consciously conceived approach (whether it was successful or not), which intentionally sought visual exactness above all else.30

  2. If we go back to Liotard's self-portraits with the technical and aesthetic ideas of his Traité in mind, then this is where the problem arises. For how could an artist whose entire aesthetic approach was based on the 'true' representation of the visible world, deal with the phenomenological problem of painting the one thing in the world that he could not see? In order to paint a self-portrait, one has to paint one's own body, but one can never see that lived-body in its entirety, the way we see other people's bodies, for our vision of ourselves is always either partial or mediated. As Merleau-Ponty notes, we can see our hands and feet, but never our faces or backs.31 Our only visual access to our whole body is through the reflective surface of a mirror, providing what Merleau-Ponty terms a 'specular image'.32 It is this visual impediment that makes self-portraiture unique as a form of representation, and which, for an artist intent on translating nature with visual exactness, makes 'true' self-representation technically impossible. To represent his own lived-body required the perceptual feat of self-objectification: to paint himself, Liotard had somehow to see himself. Perhaps an artist like Reynolds, who sought to improve nature through idealisation, could unconcernedly paint self-portraits via a mediated or partial vision of his body, but for Liotard, this phenomenological bind was a constraint that became a point of fascination as his aesthetic goals developed. Indeed, this is what we see when comparing Liotard's first self-portrait (Fig. 1) with his last (Fig. 2). Liotard's increasing concern with this phenomenological conundrum is manifest in that shift from being content to see himself as others saw him, to focusing entirely on his own corporeal experience of seeing himself, representing not only his body, but his body in the act of seeing his body.


Seeing himself in the world

  1. So how did Liotard get from start to finish, from self-presentation to self-representation? The Traité only indicates the artist's interests and goals as he envisaged them by the 1780s. As we have already seen, Liotard did not start out his career with his mature aesthetic approach intact, rather it was something that emerged through his artistic practice. To understand how Liotard's approach developed, it is the objects themselves that offer the most comprehensive record of his changing interests, something which becomes particularly evident when the self-portraits are isolated from his œuvre and observed as a group, for we start to discern shifts in his vision as he experimented with this distinctive genre. Though avoiding an emphasis on biography in this analysis of Liotard's self-portraits, it is thus nevertheless important to keep track of chronology. Staying with the early years of his career, I want to turn next to two portraits that Liotard produced after leaving Paris in 1735: one made in Italy before his Ottoman travels (Fig. 3) and the other after his return, at the moment of his European début as the 'peintre turc' (Fig. 4). While there is a striking difference in his sartorial presentation in these two works, there is something very similar in how Liotard was seeing his body at this point, a representational approach that I would argue suggests how he was beginning to deal with finding an objective vision of himself.

3 Jean-Étienne Liotard, Self-Portrait, 1737, pastel, 38 x 24.7 cm. © Musée d'art et d'histoire, Geneva, Cabinet d'arts graphiques, inv. 1934-12 (Photo: Bettina Jacot-Descombes)