Museum purchases, especially from private collectors, are always a good thing because they get art out of an exclusive holding into a public place. On Dec. 18th, The Art Newspaper named the ten best museum acquisitions in 2017 and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum investment in Jean-Etienne Liotard’s “A Dutch Girl at Breakfast” made the cut. The Painting had been out of circulation for some two centuries beginning with owner William Ponsonby, 2nd Earl Of Bessborough and ending with his descendant Frederick Ponsonby, 10th Earl of Bessborough.

Liotard is no Leonardo

But while the purchase is good news, it’s not exactly the buy of the century – despite what Amsterdam museum direction Taco Dibbits said in his press statement.

Apparently, he was so taken with the get that he overstated its importance, saying that Liotard’s painting “radiates the same atmosphere of peace and simplicity as Vermeer’s ‘Milkmaid.’” I would argue that instead of “peace,” Liotard described a frail, forlorn-looking figure while Vermeer’s is robust and smiling. Met curator Walter Liedtke once compared “Milkmaid” to the “Mona Lisa,” owing to her secret smile. It goes without saying that Liotard is no Leonardo. Likely director Dibbits called attention to Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” because the painting is part of the Rijksmuseum collection.

In a class by itself

Liotard and Vermeer also had little in common. The Dutchman pictured domesticity and the Frenchman specialized in fashionable portraiture.

Granted, “A Girl at Breakfast” isn’t typical for him. Affectation marks his usual work. His painting of an unadorned figure in a stark breakfast room is far from, say, his likeness of Marie-Adalaid, third daughter of Louis XV dolled up in a Turkish costume and ensconced on a plushy couch. Liotard was also given to painting himself in costume or a crimson velvet jacket at his easel.

Who does that?

Laying it on thick

Then there’s Liotard’s standing in art history – hardly that of Vermeer, who is said to be one of the best painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Sir Joshua Reynolds, a contemporary of the French artist, didn’t like his work. James Northcote, the Brit’s biographer, quoted him saying that Liotard lacked imagination: “He could render nothing but what he saw before his eyes...Minuteness prevailed in all his works, grace in none; nor was there any ease in his outlines, but the stiffness of a bust in all his portraits...The only merit to Liotard’s pictures is neatness.” Ouch.

There’s no comparison

Of course, it should be noted that both Liotard and Reynolds were in the same line of work – portrait painting - and in all likelihood competed for commissions. So we probably should discount the Brit’s opinion. As well, we should also overlook the hyperbole of the Dutch museum director as public relations to beef up attendance. Putting aside the putdown from Reynolds and the promoting from Dibbits, it seems fair to simply say that ‘A Girl at Breakfast” is no “Milkmaid.”

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