Jean-Etienne Liotard was one of the most accomplished portrait artists of his time. Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1702 he went on to have a very successful career, completing most of it in stays in Rome, Istanbul, Paris, Vienna, London and other cities. At the height of his career he was commissioned to represent members of royal families in his respective residences. The masterpiece came to my attention through a recent Guardian article, exploring how the painting was donated to the National Gallery through the UK’s AIL Acceptance in Lieu scheme. This painting was given in exchange for a waiving of a whopping £10 M inheritance tax bill. The government must be thrilled. Let’s explore it further.

Jean-Etienne Liotard was an artist in great demand across Enlightenment Europe and beyond. An eccentric and distinctive portraitist, his work conjures up the magnificence and cultural curiosity of the age in vividly lifelike detail. Royal Academy

This masterpiece represents a tender moment captured between a mother and her daughter having breakfast. the level of attention to detail is astonishing here. Look at the reflection of the tableware from the perfectly lacquered breakfast table. The reflection of the light on the metal pot and the porcelain jug, subtly different from each other, is impressive indeed. Liotard has produced this effect by wetting the pastels and creating lumps to give it form. And look at the reflection of the window pane in the milk jug!

Perhaps the greatest detail is the sheet music in the open drawer in the bottom left hand corner of the painting. Liotard has actually signed his name and the place the painting was made “Liotard, in Lyon, 1754”. Self referential? Yes, but in the most marvellous way.

Observe the tender look the mother is giving her daughter while steadying the saucer, observe the little curls of paper in the daughter’s hair and the concentration with which she is dunking. These paper curls were used to set her hair for the day, further confirming this scene is taking place at breakfast. If you look closely you’ll see that the mother’s finger tips and nails are reflected in the table, which is an extraordinary detail. Also, the cup of coffee into which her daughter is dunking is about to overflow, hence the need for her mother’s steadying hands.

The satin-esque material  of the mother’s dress is resplendently portrayed, especially as contrasted with the simpler ‘smaller’ version of the same dress her daughter is sporting.  Notice the similarity in the cut of both dresses and the ruffles in the sleeves.

The gallery said the level of care with which the still life aspects of the work had been executed was extraordinary. They include unusual layers of thick wet pastel to create the illusion of reflection on the metal coffee pot and Chinese porcelain. The Guardian

Overall I am awed by this work. The fact that a pastel work from 1754 has managed to last nearly 300 years and still be in this remarkable condition. The definition of each constituent part of this painting and the sheer detail Liotard has managed to expose to us is extraordinary. See below for more details on this painting, as told by the National Gallery’s curator for portraits 1600-1800, Francesca Whitlum-Cooper.