Des Chats comme Félix

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet (Royal Academy of Arts, 30 June—29 September 2019)

I had a grumpy wander around the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern, but it wasn’t doing much for me, or the crowd were getting in the way. Bonnard was part of a group of French artists, Les Nabis or The Prophets, who had mostly been to the Académie Julian in the late 1880s, and who were fans of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gaugin. Other members included Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and Édouard Vuillard.

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The Enlightenment Condition

Jean-Étienne Liotard National Gallery of Scotland, 4 July-13 September 2015, Royal Academy of Arts, 24 October 2015-31 January 2016)

I confess I had never heard of Jean-Étienne Liotard. He was born in Geneva in 1702 and began his training there before going to Paris for further training. He then travelled to Naples and Rome in the 1730s, as well as travelling several times to Constantinople. Much of what he did were portraits, both of the famous people he met and of the people who were effectively on a grand tour. Many of them — including himself — dressed up as if they were Turks, in a clear example of orientalism.

Back in Western Europe, he was much in demand oas a portraitist of the royals families in Vienna, Paris and London, sometimes in oil, sometimes in pastels. Supposedly they are more relaxed and intimate than the typical royal portraits — he had an incredulity to court formality. His depiction of hands is striking — so to speak — or of fingers, almost as if he was showing off. He was very open to making money from his work through mezzotints and engravings. He also painted many self portraits and pictures of his family (it would have been helpful to have these by the side of some of the royal portraits on show at The Queen’s Gallery, Holyrood).

I was slightly confused by the chronology of the exhibition — are the royal and society portraits (actors, actresses) not later than the pictures of Constantinople? Still, the incredible trompe l’oieil of the paintings in the third room are worth seeing last.

I was, naturally, struck by the picture of Count Jean Diodati at his villa c.1762-70; just over forty years later this was to be the birthplace of Frankenstein.