Liotard, Jean-Etienne: La Belle Chocolatire (c.1745)

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"Art is not a copy of the real world. One of the damn things is enough," said Virginia Woolf, possibly (the alleged quotation has never been traced). But the magic of realism is not so easily dispelled. We love a perfect copy and people are still amazing one another with their ability to produce uncannily accurate representations of the world they know already.

Realism's latest forum is computer-assisted animation. The plotlines and body forms of Toy Story, Shrek, The Incredibles and Ratatouille may be fantastical. But the way these moving images realise the textures of the world is miraculous. They seem to have got right down into the grain of things, capturing every last detail of fur, grass, cloth, fingerprint.

Yet we can also see that this isn't quite true. These super-realistic visions have an obviously unrealistic aspect to them: they are immaculate. The world they present is teemingly detailed, but also superbly neat. It looks convincing because it's got such a quantity of exact minutiae. But at a certain level the detail stops. All the little particles the animated world is made of are perfectly smooth and sharp. This fact gleams out.

The effect doesn't require new technology. It is the characteristic trick of high realism throughout its history in Western art. It creates images that combine extraordinary powers of exact observation with extraordinary tidiness. Even as it is depicted, the world is cleaned, tuned up, perfected.

Jean-Etienne Liotard's La Belle Chocolatire is one of the wonders of high realism. Executed in supremely articulate pastel, it seems to require little description or commentary, it is so focused on depicting the appearance of its rather minimal subject and on nothing else. A lady's maid, in cap and apron, carries a tray with a cup of hot chocolate and a glass of water: it's all there before you, nothing more, nothing less.

Realism at full blast is like pitch darkness. It takes a while for the eye to adjust. At first the illusion is overwhelming. All you can see is the complete and inexhaustible truth of the representation. The eye searches and each particular confirms perfection: the reflections and refractions in the glass of water, the faint embroidery of the collar, the multiple contingent creases of the apron.

Our search for a crack in the illusion isn't critical niggling. It's a more basic drive, the need to make a cognitive truce with an image we know has not simply been transferred by miracle from the world on to paper, but made by human hand.

And as your scrutinising eye becomes accustomed to the scene, you see that there are signs of human making. There are mistakes, for example. The wooden floor the maid stands on doesn't properly recede. If you look at where it appears briefly on the left-hand side of her dress, and how the shadow falls, the floor seems more like an upright wall against which she is standing.

The occasional looseness also interrupts Liotard's seamless rendition. The shimmering highlights on the crinoline skirt are not quite precisely rendered they have a suggestive sketchiness. In other pictures these marks might not read as sketchy. But here, where everything else is so tight, there is a change of register. At this point we see the image hasn't just materialised. It is made of hand-drawn strokes.

And there's a further shift of gear. An element of idealisation enters into the depiction. The maid's clothes and apron are clean and fairly tidy, but their triumph is to be so plausibly rumpled. It's their imperfection, their chaotic detailing, that makes them real. Her face and hands, by contrast, are too perfect. The surface of their flesh is smoothed, rounded, creaseless. It's as if a doll or mannequin were dressed in real clothes.

The idealisation is subtle. The face and hands aren't remoulded along the lines of a classical statue. Their skin isn't hard and shiny like a doll's; its reflectivity stays flesh-like. But they lack the level of irregular detail that you find in the apron. And when you notice that, you may notice that something like it is happening to a lesser degree, and still more subtly all over the picture. Even in the most rumpled areas of the apron, the substance of things is being slightly tidied up.

We may call Liotard's realism almost flawless. But it offers a fantasy of flawlessness. It seems to fix the world in every particular, but like today's animations beneath a certain level of detail its world is unnaturally smooth. This has always been the magic of high realism, from Van Eyck to Pixar: to make you believe in a world a little bit neater than reality.

The artist

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-89), Swiss-born, Paris-trained, became the supreme exponent of pastel painting. His lifelike and sometimes unflattering portraiture was in demand throughout Europe the Pope was among patrons. He visited Constantinople. Thereafter, he wore an oriental costume and occasionally an extravagant beard, which appear in his semi-comic self-portraits, and gave him his artistic persona, as "The Turkish Painter". He opposed the 18th-century taste for paint marks, saying such things were not to be found in nature, and had no place in art.

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