Jean-Etienne Liotard

A half-forgotten master of portraiture is vividly rediscovered at the Royal Academy, writes John Westbrooke

The last time Jean-Etienne Liotard’s work was hung at the RA, he did it himself – and that was 250 years ago. So it’s a pleasure, and a revelation, to see him back.

The highlight of the first room is in fact a self-portrait, and a startling one, quite likely intended to grab the attention of prospective customers: an old man with a broad grin (and a tooth missing), pointing to some invisible source of mirth offstage. Surrounding him are other works affectionately depicting members of his family: his wife tenderly holding their son; their young daughter mischievously telling everyone to be quiet lest they wake her sleeping doll.

For all his family-man credentials, Liotard had spent much of his life as an idiosyncratic wanderer. Living in Rome, he was hired by two Englishmen to record their Grand Tour. He parted company with them in Constantinople (Istanbul), staying there for four years, adopting local dress and painting both the locals and British expats, which gave him an entrée to high society when he moved to London. He went on to paint the royal family, and those of Europe, and then to do the same for the wealthy bourgeoisie of his native Geneva.

Pictures of Turkish musicians and women in fabulous costumes fed a European fascination with turquerie. So did Liotard himself, arriving in London in Ottoman costume and sporting a lavish beard (which he removed only for the duration of his marriage), and with a collection of costumes for sitters to pose in. His rival Joshua Reynolds sniffed that he looked like a quack: he probably did resemble a street-corner mountebank in oriental garb peddling Levantine love potions.

But there was no quackery in his delightful work. Most of it is in pastel rather than oil, quick to work with and less likely to discolour over the years, which means it still looks remarkably fresh (though one red jacket has now faded almost to white). He used it to record the tiniest details: every thread of lace, every bow and ruffle, every sort of material, every freckle on a face. Experts have even spotted that one sitter, Issac-Louis de Thellusson, had mycosis – a fingernail fungus.

Liotard was more concerned with accuracy than flattery, yet his portraits have a kindly intimacy, enhanced by plain backgrounds that focus attention on the faces. George III, shown as a teenager, is pale and interesting, his eyelashes almost white. His little sister Louisa Anne, also pale, looks frail and worried in a dress several sizes too big. It’s no surprise to find she was sickly and died young.

He was commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa to produce portraits of 11 of her children too, as keepsakes. They’re more formal than the British royals. The most striking is Marie Antoinette, already incipiently imperious at the age of seven and looking older: her clothes fit perfectly, the ribbon round her neck accidentally foreshadowing her death on the guillotine during the French Revolution 30 years later. She’s finely delineated in chalk on paper, but Liotard has intensified the effect with watercolour washes on the back of the paper as well.

The highlights are twin portraits of two well-off Genevan newlyweds, Issac-Louis de Thellusson (the man with the mycosis) and his wife Julie. Unencumbered by the formality of court, uninterested in exotic costume, they gaze lovingly at each other, she in white satin with blue trim, he complementary in blue trimmed with white. Liotard gives us the clothing with his customary precision, but far more important is the glow of their happiness.

It seems surprising that Liotard’s been off the radar since his death, but most of his works are in private collections and seldom seen – many in the RA exhibition are still with their original families and in their original frames. He had no followers to keep his name in the public eye; and pastel has always been a minority medium, the poor relation of oils. The exhibition suggests just how wrong this is.

He kept on painting, his perception and skill undimmed, until well into his 80s (he died at 87 in 1789). Among his last works is another self-portrait, a Rembrandt-style image of an old, weary, long-bearded man – but still painting.

Jean-Etienne Liotard, at the Royal Academy until January 31 2016. Tickets £10, concessions available.