Although he also painted in oil and drew in black and red chalk and made etchings, Liotard is more closely associated with the medium of pastel than any other great artist, apart from Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. The present drawing is a striking demonstration of Liotard’s art, characterized by an originality and a sense of realism unlike that of any of his contemporaries. Internationally famous during his lifetime, although not universally admired, the artist worked in his native Switzerland, as well as in Italy, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Vienna – not to mention Constantinople during a stay in the years around 1740, from which he drew inspiration long after he returned to Europe. Genre scenes and his ‘Turkish’ subjects count among his most beloved works, but portraiture was the true focus of his œuvre, which can seem like a Who’s Who of 18th Century Europe.
The dashing sitter of the present work, still owned by his descendants, is identified on a label on the back as Philibert Cramer (1727-1779), who from 1753, together with his brother Gabriel, took over the family’s Geneva publishing house (F. Weil in Dictionnaire général de Voltaire, Paris, 2003, pp. 262-264). In 1754 Philibert went to meet Voltaire, whose main publishers they remained, undertaking the first complete works of the French writer and philosopher, in addition to the first editions of such works as his short novel Candide(1759). Interestingly, to avoid any trouble that could ensue from publishing the works of such a controversial thinker, they chose to do so without using their name. Voltaire kept up a frequent correspondence with Gabriel, whom he called ‘caro’, but it was Philibert who first met the Frenchman to propose publishing his writings. And while Voltaire called Gabriel ‘le marquis’, he nicknamed Philibert – with a touch of sarcasm – ‘duc Cramer‘, ‘milord Cramer’, ‘Son Altesse Philibert Cramer’, and most often ‘le prince’ or even ‘le prince de Genève’ (letters of 20 November 1764, 19 October 1768, 25 April 1770, 6 Feburary 1763, 9 April 1763, and others; see Voltaire, Correspondance, T. Besterman, ed., Paris, 1977-1992, 13 vols.).
Liotard’s portrait is complemented by that painted in the letters of Voltaire, who, while remaining friends with both men, did not refrain from making sharp-tongued comments about them. In a letter of January 1763, when Philibert launched his political career and stopped being a partner in the publishing house, Voltaire described him to a close friend as ‘very handsome, although with a slightly arched back, but he is as lazy as he is pleasant, and more attached to the hôtel de La Rochefoucauld than to Corneille’s verse. He has wit and taste […] and gave up the dignity of being the publisher’. When Philibert, staying in Paris, started calling himself ‘baron Philibert’, Voltaire did not curb his mockery (16 March 1770). Some occasional frustration and maybe even mild contempt shone through when he remarked on what Voltaire perceived as Philibert’s and Gabriel’s laziness; he wrote to Gabriel (addressing him in the third person) that he and his brother ‘prefer playing cards, having supper with the duc de Villars, taking ladies around in their carriage and enjoying life; they are right, but it angers me and I am desperate to correct them’ (August 1761). Discussing the political ambitions of the brothers, Voltaire wrote bluntly in a letter to Gabriel: ‘in your family, you are more made to be secretaries of Venus than of Themis’, the goddess of justice (circa15 November 1766). When the Swiss Republic sent Philibert as ambassador to France, Voltaire remarked cuttingly: ‘the Republic has sent my publisher as ambassador to Versailles; I suppose the [French] King will send his bookbinder to Switzerland to make peace there’ (20 April 1770). But Voltaire’s spirited comments should be taken as a sign of affection for a man of elegance, ‘goût’ and ‘esprit’.
Liotard wonderfully captured his sitter’s charisma and handsome features in his portrait, in which Philibert is seen in a simple pose expressing his self-assurance. His blue coat, embroidered with silver, and pure white shirt with ruffles contrast with the plain background, typical of Liotard, as is the bright and even light and the smooth appearance – without visible strokes, and often described as porcelain-like, perhaps even more attractive to modern viewers than to his contemporaries. ‘To achieve his highly enameled finish,’ Neil Jeffares writes, ‘Liotard compressed the pastel deeply into the support using the stick itself rather than a conventional stump […]. The pressure altered the reflectivity of the pastel compared with lighter application, and […] resulted in the very particular appearance of his work’ (op. cit., p. 5). The portrait of Cramer is thought to have been made around 1758, shortly after Liotard’s return to Geneva from Holland, when Philibert was about thirty years old. More than a portrait of a specific person, it is a portrait of elegance, savoir vivre, worldly ambition, intellectual flair, and just a degree of self-satisfaction – perhaps not all Enlightenment ideals, but all the same illustrative of the times in which the artist and his model lived.