The Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard most likely produced this portrait in pastel on vellum or parchment while he was living in Constantinople from 1738 to 1742. He travelled widely across Europe, producing pastels and chalk drawings of European nobles and diplomats who are often in Eastern costume.
The bearded man here may be one of these sitters wearing Turkish clothes. However, it is far more likely that he is an as yet unidentified Turkish Grand Vizier (Prime Minister), as both the white gold-striped conical turban and the ermine-trimmed coat were worn by Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire. The most likely candidate is Nişanci (Chancellor) ‘Kőr’ Ahmed Pasha, who served the longest of the four Grand Viziers in office during Liotard’s stay in Constantinople. If this portrait is of Ahmed Pasha, it was probably produced around 1741.
Born and raised in Geneva before moving to Paris, Jean-Etienne Liotard had an international career that took him around Europe. While in Rome, he was invited by William Ponsonby, the 2nd Earl of Beesborough, to join him on a visit to Constantinople (now part of Istanbul). Liotard remained in Constantinople from the spring of 1738 to the autumn of 1742, and these four years were a defining period for his work. While living there, Liotard grew his distinctive long beard, adopted Turkish clothing and called himself ‘the Turkish painter’. He travelled widely across Europe producing pastels and highly finished red and black chalk drawings of European nobles and diplomats, often in Eastern costume.
The bearded man in this pastel on vellum or parchment (specially prepared animal skin) may be one of these sitters wearing Turkish clothes. He was once thought to be Edward Wortley Montagu, either the father (1678–1761) or the son (1713–1776). However, although Montagu senior was the British ambassador in Constantinople from 1717 to 1718, he was there 20 years before Liotard arrived. Liotard could have painted him during his first visit to London in 1753, but the former ambassador would have then been 75 and too old for the man we see here. Nor does the portrait look like confirmed portraits of his son, so he too is no longer believed to be the sitter. The claim that this is a self portrait of Liotard himself has also been rejected.
Although the possibility of a European sitter cannot be completely ruled out, it is far more likely that this man is an as yet unidentified Turkish Grand Vizier (the Prime Minister answerable only to the Sultan himself), as both the white gold-striped conical turban and the ermine-trimmed coat were worn by Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire. There were four Grand Viziers whom Liotard might have portrayed during the four years he was in Constantinople, but identifying the one we may be looking at here is not straightforward. The most likely candidate – on the basis of age at least – is Nişanci (Chancellor) ‘Kőr’ Ahmed Pasha, who died in 1753 (the date of his birth is unknown). Before his dismissal in April 1742 and exile to Rhodes, Ahmed Pasha also served the longest of the four Grand Viziers in office during Liotard’s time in Constantinople. If this portrait is of Ahmed Pasha, it was probably produced around 1741. The plain background and direct stare at the viewer are in keeping with other pastels by Liotard from this period.
Although it has not been possible to confirm the identity of the sitter, this is a fine portrait. Liotard mainly limits his colours to a cool jade green for the background and white and brown tones for the clothing. The man’s pale face, with its open and inquiring expression, is consistent with the subtle tones of the picture. Liotard skilfully uses the pastel to capture the texture and sheen of the various fabrics – for example, the reflected light on the gold band, the folds of the sleeve and the coat’s ermine trims.
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