With its military power in decline by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire began to open up to visitors from western Europe.
Merchants and diplomats were followed by an increasing number of curious travellers enchanted by the notion of ‘Turquerie’ and by the fabled exoticism of the court at Constantinople (now Istanbul). The publication of illustrated travel books and accounts, such as Jean-Antoine Guer’s Mouers et usages des Turcs (1747), fuelled a growing fascination with Eastern customs and costume, and inspired the emergence of an unprecedented vogue for pictures, like this one, in which European sitters were portrayed à la Turque.
Foreign artists were among the first to settle in the newly fashionable East. One of them was Swiss painter and pastellist Jean-Étienne Liotard who arrived in Constantinople in 1738 in the company of his patron Sir William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl of Bessborough. He remained in the city for four years, immersing himself in the region’s culture, art and language. Liotard’s aristocratic connections gained him an entree into the cosmopolitan expatriot community. The exquisite execution and uncluttered simplicity of the artist’s compositions in oils, pastels and chalks found immediate favour, and there was no shortage of influential patrons eager to commission portraits of themselves or their families in Turkish regalia. There was also a market for Liotard’s exotic and evocative genre scenes. His passion for the Middle East did not diminish after his return to Europe; in fact, he continued to sport a lengthy beard and adopted Ottoman costume, quickly attaining celebrity status as ‘the Turkish Painter’.
While in Constantinople Liotard made two drawings of a young European woman in Turkish clothes seated reading on a divan: this one, and another, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Carcassonne, France. These two drawings are remarkably similar compositionally, although the artist has used an unusual technique in the National Gallery of Victoria’s version that involved shading the reverse of the sheet with red and black chalk to enhance the subtle tonality of the work. Liotard often reworked his most popular or successful compositions; there are four known painted versions of this subject, one dating from the artist’s Constantinople years, and the others executed following his return to Paris. Details of many of Liotard’s commissions and the identities of his aristocratic sitters are well documented, yet, surprisingly, we do not know the identity of the young woman who posed for this luminous study.
Text by Nick Williams from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 65.