When the art connoisseur Francesco Algarotti saw a pastel called "The Chocolate Girl" (c. 1744) in Venice in 1745, he immediately wanted to acquire it from the artist, Jean-Étienne Liotard, for King August III of Saxony. The king loved pastels—especially those by Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757), a Venetian artist internationally renowned for hers—and was building a unique chamber in his Dresden palace for works in this light-sensitive medium.
No fool, Algarotti relayed Carriera's opinion of the Liotard work to the king: On first sight, she had proclaimed it "the most beautiful pastel ever seen." The king bought it, and eventually "The Chocolate Girl" passed to the Dresden State Art Collections, where it has probably become the most popular pastel ever seen, too. Visitors love her and, aside from being copied by other artists in paint, pastels, etchings and posters, "The Chocolate Girl" has appeared in countless advertisements, folk art pieces and as a Meissen porcelain figure.
These days, "The Chocolate Girl" occupies the place of honor in the Pastel Cabinet of Dresden's newly renovated Old Masters Picture Gallery, which reopened this month after being closed in March because of the coronavirus. There, it's obvious why she charms so many. She is a sweet teenage servant—a rare subject in the High Rococo period in which she was created—surrounded by formal portraits of princes, aristocrats and muses. She's carrying a cup of chocolate, then exotic, to her mistress. She is aesthetically a triumph and technically flawless—exemplifying the illusionistic, painterly qualities of pastels, which many people today view as a drawing medium.
She is also something of an anomaly for Liotard (1702-1789), a Swiss-born eccentric who traveled widely, spent years in Constantinople, and took to sporting a long beard, wearing Levantine dress and calling himself "the Turkish painter" upon his return to Europe, where he won portrait commissions and favor in various courts. He sometimes painted in oil, but by his day, pastels were considered finished, not preparatory, works, and Liotard gained renown with his pastels, especially the portraits.
For them, Liotard generally portrayed his subjects very precisely against a plain background, just as they appeared to him, with few embellishments. He claimed to be "a painter of truth," according to the catalog of a 2018-19 exhibition in Dresden focused on "The Chocolate Girl."
Liotard also placed her on a plain background—light gray—but he signaled in many ways that she is different. Significantly, Liotard put her on lamb's skin parchment, which is more expensive than paper (even his famous c. 1746 "Self-Portrait in Turkish Costume" is on paper). Parchment is more stable and offers a smooth surface that allowed Liotard to create an image with a lustrous, porcelain-like quality.
Liotard fused two pieces of parchment to get the size he wanted for "The Chocolate Girl" (at 32.5 inches by 20.7 inches, she is much larger than the heads surrounding her). Cleverly, he used the join—which falls on her pleated white apron about three-quarters down from her waist—to make a deep wrinkle, as if the apron had just been unfolded.
"The Chocolate Girl" is neither a portrait nor an illustration. She is a real person, painted from life. The image—a plain girl wearing a gray skirt, tan jacket, white shawl, lace-trimmed pink bonnet and that crisp apron—is sharp, almost like a stop-action photograph: Not moving, she holds a tray with the chocolate, sweetmeats and a glass of water. You can see her eyelashes, the stitches on her hem and the white tips of her fingernails. You can see through the water in the glass, which reflects two windows that are the source of light. You can see a very subtle shadow of the girl on the bare wall.
If Liotard made preparatory drawings, none exist; nor are there any traces of underdrawing, according to Roland Enke, curator of the 2018 exhibition. To achieve the effects he wanted, Liotard used several methods. For precise lines, like the floral pattern on the cup, he drew with pastel crayons. When necessary, as for the background, he smudged his pigments and rarely let his chalk marks show, in contrast to most other pastelists of his times. He made smooth color transitions—witness the girl's soft cheeks, girlish hands and the sheen on her clothes.
For touches like the reflections on the glass, Liotard blended ground pastels with water and applied the mix with a brush, sometimes layering the pigments, like oil paints. He creates texture and highlights in some places, such as the rim of the cup's saucer, with thick, impasto layers. His greatest illusion comes in the girl's apron, where the pleats, folds and creases seem palpable. This authenticity anticipates the turn toward realism in the 19th century and seems almost modern.
When Liotard finished "The Chocolate Girl," he placed her in a carved, gold, high-relief frame—much deeper and more elaborate, festooned with pearls, keys and other flourishes, than his usual frames. And although he made reproductions of many of his other works, he never created another "Chocolate Girl." Perhaps he sensed that his radiant teenager would eclipse his own fame.