Still life with pears, figs, prunes, a bread roll and a knife on the table, 1782, by Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789). (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images); Geneva, Musée D'Art Et D'Histoire (Art Museum). (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
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Bittersweet breakfast

“Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast” at the National Gallery

At first glance, and for some time afterwards, too, it’s the sweetest of scenes. A young woman and a little girl are seated together at a table, taking their breakfast. We, the viewers, are positioned very close to them — admitted to their intimate, domestic circle. 

The little girl’s hair is put up in crimping papers. It’s so easy to imagine the context — she wants to be just like the elegant woman who, we learn elsewhere, is probably her aunt. She’s on best behaviour, carefully dunking a crust of thick-cut bread into a cup of milky, sweetened coffee. The task occupies her entire attention. 

The Lavergne Family Breakfast, Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1754 © The National Gallery, London

The girl’s aunt, meanwhile, steadies the cup — because as the laws of physics demand, displacement on the part of the bread is causing the coffee to rise up to the edge of the rim. Any moment now, the liquid will splash from the cup, down into the deep saucer, possibly onto the table itself. So it is that human passions invariably threaten to overspill the bounds of decorum. 

Contemplating her mini-me niece, the aunt’s gaze mixes concern with tenderness. She, too, appears wholly lost in the moment. 

Auntie, meanwhile, is looking glamorous today. Her hair is elaborately styled and powdered. She wears a dress of fine silk, woven in rose-and-chocolate stripes, reflecting the cool morning light as only silk can. To protect it, she (or more plausibly, her maid) has pinned on with tiny pins, which we can see very clearly, not only flowing sleeves but also a sort of glorified apron, made of what looks like extremely delicate linen. 

Around Auntie’s neck is a pink silk ribbon. On the side of the table facing towards us, someone has stuffed a sheet of music into a drawer so hastily that it half emerges. Is this an ostentatious marker of informality, or might our charming domestic scene hold a few more secrets?

On one hand, the picture is obviously a secularised version of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read. Here, though, what’s being taught isn’t the holy text in which the Incarnation is foretold, but rather, the foundational rites of secular civility — how to dress, consume food and drink, interact with others in order to function within society. On the other hand, it’s a timelessly human moment.

This, anyway, is the The Lavergne Family Breakfast (1754), a remarkably assured pastel drawing executed by Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789). It’s currently the focus of a small but worthwhile exhibition at the National Gallery in London. 

The picture was acquired by the National Gallery in 2019 from the estate of art collector George Pinto (1929–2018) under the Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme. Long hidden from public view, it’s now being given the fuss it manifestly deserves.

As is the way of these free mini-exhibitions, the eponymous picture is accompanied by other works, there to provide context and comparison. Chief amongst these is Liotard’s own copy in oils of The Lavergne Family Breakfast, executed almost 20 years later, here borrowed from Waddeston Manor. The two haven’t been seen side by side since 1773. Although the oil copy has probably kept its colour better, the original pastel version has a velvety, luminosity all its own.

Liotard was a child of the Enlightenment — its internationalism, taste for the exotic and alertness to commercial opportunities. 

His parents were French Protestants who escaped to Geneva from Montélimar, near Lyon, after their faith was outlawed in 1685. His father was a tailor and textile merchant. This shows. As with Ingres, his fascination with fabric was boundless. Anyone who cares about the history of fashion would be mad to miss this show. 

Liotard’s education as an artist took him to Paris, Naples, Rome — and then, less conventionally, to Istanbul, where from 1738-42 he spent four productive years. On his return, this consummate self-publicist and businessman marketed himself as “the Turkish painter”, sporting a bushy beard and Oriental costume, the latter of which he retained for the rest of his long life. 

Self Portrait, Jean-Etienne Liotard, about 1753 © Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Although he also worked in gouache, oils and even mezzotint, Liotard’s quintessential medium was the pastel crayon — pigment, often heavily saturated, fixed in a binding substance. Applied to the relatively rough surface of paper or vellum, pastel can convey light effects with a soft intensity wholly unlike any other medium. 

Pastel is also, however, unforgiving. The colours can’t be mixed like oils can; it’s hard to correct mistakes; adding additional layers of colour tends to result either in a muddy mess, or in the pigment simply falling off — something that also happens if the resulting pictures were moved around too often, as is occasionally evident in the current show. 

Liotard became a highly fashionable portraitist, creating both miniatures and larger pastel drawings. 

For a while, Liotard was the darling of various European capitals, attracting sitters ranging from self-publicising celebrities and aristocrats to members of royal houses. What he offered his international clientele was subtle but oh-so-on-trend: apparent informality (simple backgrounds, smiling faces, sometimes “honest” to the point of being unflattering) coupled with low-key material opulence (porcelain, coffee and chocolate, lace and silk), all of it viewed with a connoisseur’s knowing eye.

Liotard was particularly good at depicting women, as is obvious from the present show, where the faces looking out from the frame are so often somehow off-guard, open — totally believable. One suspects he must have been a very charming man.

Later, as often happens with super-fashionable artists, Liotard’s star dimmed slightly. He turned to painting still lifes — all those precious, admirable objects, now floating free of their owners. One of the stars of the current show is Still Life: Tea Set (c 1781-83), an absolute riot of well-observed porcelain, silver spoons, buttered bits of bread — une nature morte with more life in it than one finds in most battle scenes. 

Still Life: Tea Set; Jean-Étienne Liotard (Swiss, 1702 – 1789); about 1781–1783; Oil on canvas mounted on board; 37.8 × 51.6 cm (14 7/8 × 20 5/16 in.); 84.PA.57; No Copyright – United States (

Liotard died in Geveva in 1789, a few weeks before the Storming of the Bastille. The coffee, in the end, could not be prevented from splashing out of the cup.

Perhaps inevitably, given its modest scale, there are points at which this exhibition raises more questions than it answers. 

Creatures of our time, we can hardly help seeing the past through the variously distorting lenses of our own preoccupations. A wall text set next to Still Life: Tea Set — the last in the show — points out that the sugar depicted therein was made using the coerced labour of enslaved people, further insisting that Liotard and his sitters would have realised this. 

So, too, frankly, should any functioning present-day adult. 

Such contextualisation is, by now, conventional to the point of banality, albeit executed with more or less skill. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, for instance, accompany their presentation of a Georgian dessert table c 1760-70 with a striking intervention called “A Nice Cup of Tea?”. Created from smashed porcelain, it was doing its job very effectively when I visited the gallery earlier this year, eliciting real curiosity from a visiting school party.

Nor is it unreasonable to insist on the dark side of the Enlightenment — to insist that the civility, material prosperity and luxury consumer goods enjoyed at the Lavergne family breakfast table depended on an economic and social system that, for all its much-proclaimed commitment to reason, sensibility and progress, treated the lives of other human beings as casually expendable. 

Yet the way this is done at the National Gallery feels perfunctory, even a bit cheap. Is Liotard’s work now considered so unrelatable that we can no longer be expected to consume it without an added bitter note, something to give all that oh-so-civilised sweetness a bit of an edge?

If so, as well as mentioning sugar, it might have been good to explore some less familiar stories. 

The silk-weavers of Lyon, for instance, with whom Liotard had a far more obvious connection, suffered extreme religious persecution and banishment, mass executions during the French Revolution (“Lyon made war on Liberty; Lyon no longer exists”) and then, only a few decades later, brutal attempts to crush the first stirrings of industrial organisation. This, at least, might have the benefit of telling us something we don’t already know.

Or, possibly, we could simply enjoy a tender moment between two long-dead people, captured in a fragile, fugitive medium — unsurprised to note that they, like us, sought beauty in the midst of an imperfect, often ugly world. 

Discover Liotard and the Lavergne Family Breakfast
16 November 2023 – 3 March 2024
Sunley Room, National Gallery
Free admission 
A book relating to the exhibition is available here

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