The Chocolate Girl
Liotard, Jean-Étienne (1702-1789) | Painter
This image of a simple serving girl, painted in Vienna in 1744, became Liotard’s most famous pastel. It is not known whether he portrayed a real individual or merely depicted a parlour-maid serving hot chocolate as a type. The low social status of the subject, the full-figure profile depiction and the realistic representation made this painting significantly different from all the others in the historic pastel cabinet. The title “The Chocolate Girl” only gained currency in the mid-19th century.
Jean-Étienne Liotard spent five years living in the Ottoman Empire, mostly in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. There, he began wearing Eastern dress, a habit he continued after he returned to Vienna. Some were shocked and appalled by the presence of someone apparently Turkish in the city.
But thanks to his exotic appearance, Liotard quickly gained in notoriety – which even then had a cash value. For contemporaries, he was the man with the beard, the Eastern clothes – and the high prices. Liotard was never permanently employed at court. Instead, as a specialist in pastel paintings, he spent many years travelling between the most fashionable courts of his day, portraying European rulers and nobles. He was an especial favourite of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, ‘Europe’s first lady’, and painted several portraits of her and each of her children. The Chocolate Girl remained an exception in Liotard’s oeuvre, since it neither portrays a princess nor any other aristocratic lady, but just a simple housemaid.
Most works in the Dresden art collection are shown in a special type of frame. The ‘gallery frame’, as it is called, originated in the work of two Dresden court sculptors in the 1740s. In their workshop, the sculptors produced hand-carved frames in series, sold, as it were, by the metre. Some lengths of frames had more decorative elements, while others had less. In this way, it was simpler to cut sections to fit and assemble them into more or less decorated frames, depending on the importance of the paintings. The corners, in particular, were decorated with a special feature, the rocaille – the shell motif so central to Rococo style. Traditionally, the pastels in the Dresden collection were always set in the most decorative frames. But the most beautiful frame is not reserved for a portrait of a leading noblewoman or famous singer, but for the unknown Chocolate Girl. Her frame is decorated with such elements as carved fans, knitting things and a purse – perhaps because the frame makers found it easiest to identify with a simple housemaid.
The earliest known pastel paintings were by sixteenth-century northern Italian artists. Initially, though, only three pigments were used for pastels – black, white and red. The Italian artists primarily worked with coloured powder pigments for preliminary sketches for their oil paintings.
Pastel painting enjoyed its Golden Age in the eighteenth century. Rosalba Carriera, who specialised in society portraits, pioneered the exclusive use of pastels. For portraits, the technique of pastel painting had some very definite advantages over working in oils. The pastel crayons were not just far lighter to transport, but also cheaper – and since pastels do not have to dry, artists needed fewer sessions with their subjects.
With her pastel portraits, Rosalba Carriera triggered a wave of enthusiasm for this art technique across Europe. Many artists also on show in the gallery, such as Anton Raphael Mengs and Jean-Etienne Liotard, were inspired by Rosalba’s pastels – and so helped to make pastel an independent medium in art.
After the French Revolution, pastel painting initially declined in popularity as it was associated with the aristocracy and nobles of the Ancien Régime. But pastels enjoyed a new lease of life towards the end of the nineteenth century – above all, in works by the French artist Edgar Dégas and the Impressionists.
- Material & Technique
- Pastel on parchment
- Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
- c. 1744
- Inventory number
- Gal.-Nr. P 161