Georges de La Tour

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Georges de La Tour
Georges de La Tour, born , March 19, 1593, Vic-sur-Seille, Lorraine, Fr. - died Jan. 30, 1652, Luneville, painter, mostly of candlelit subjects, who was well known in his own time but then forgotten until well into the 20th century, when the identification of many formerly misattributed works established his modern reputation as a giant of French painting.

La Tour became a master painter and eventually settled in Luneville. King Louis XIII, Henry II of Lorraine, and the Duke de La Ferte were among the collectors of his work. Although the chronology of La Tour's output is uncertain, it is clear that he initially painted in a realistic manner and was influenced by the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio or his followers.

The paintings of La Tour's maturity, however, are marked by a startling geometric simplification of the human form and by the depiction of interior scenes lit only by the glare of candles or torches. His religious paintings done in this manner have a monumental simplicity and a stillness that expresses both contemplative quiet and wonder.

The body of his work was conclusively identified by the German art historian Hermann Voss and by other scholars after 1915. La Tour's work also exhibits a high degree of originality in colour and composition; the characteristic simplification of forms gives many of his pictures a deceptively modern appearance. Among La Tour's most impressive candlelit scenes are “The Newborn,” “St. Joseph the Carpenter,” and “The Lamentation over St. Sebastian.” “The Hurdy-gurdy Player” and “The Sharper” are among his less numerous daylight compositions.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

"The Penitent Magdalen"


The Penitent Magdalen
Oil on canvas, 133,4 x 102,2 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The artist painted four different versions of this subject, which lent itself to an exploration of the "nocturne"', or night scene -the scene is set in an enclosed, candlelit interior. The style of the work is clearly in the Caravaggist tradition. The theme of the penitent Magdalen, still in her prime and shown contemplating the worldly goods and vanities that she rejects, occurs frequently in 17th-century European Catholic art, from Guido Reni to Artemisia Gentileschi (c.1596—1652). The figure is seated, her legs almost in silhouette, while the upper part of her body is better lit. Her face is turned away. shown almost entirely in profile, and her hands are clasped on a skull resting on her lap. Nearby, a small mirror with an elaborate frame stands on a table: in front, there is a lighted candle. Jewels lie scattered on the table and on the floor.

The composition is unusual yet simple, dominated by the still solid figure of the Magdalen. A series of three irregular trapeziums can he seen in the form of her figure as a whole, apart of her arm in the foreground, and her underskirt. In the upper area of deepest shadow, the mirror is outlined by its elaborate gilded frame, broken only by the shape of the candle and its reflection, which almost bisects it. The rounded forms of the head and skull are echoed in the curves seen in the more strongly lit areas of the figure.

The austerity of the compostion helps focus attention on the essentials. The artist draws attention to significant details, emphasizing the curtain and floor against the dark areas to balance the pictorial structure. The major effects are created by the strong contrasts of light and shade, and the whole work is based on this type of dialogue of opposites - not only in pictorial terms. Dazzled by the violent red and yellow light in the obscurity of her room, the Magdalen holds the skull, a symbol of the vanity of worldly wealth, and gazes at the source of illumination. In a typically Baroque image, she contemplates both the true light of the candle and its reflected light in the mirror.

Warm tones suffuse the seated woman's head, shoulders, and face. The ivory hues of her open Mouse and skin contrast with the bright red of the undergarment. A skilful and meticulous application of tone on tone conjures up the shadows that fall between the fabric and the skin, and in the folds and pleats of the fabric. The variety of shades within an apparent uniformity of colours reveals tremendous virtuosity. The handling of the long, glossy hair with its smooth and sinuous line, shows the same mastery and intensity, and illustrates the quality of the painting.

Light barely penetrates the lower part of this scene, in contrast to the more dramatic lighting of the upper half. 'The dully gleaming jewels are barely discernible on the floor. La Tour's subtlety and delicacy shine through the darkness, typifying an artistic culture that did not hesitate to express itself in a complex and ambiguous manner. His skilful lighting effects reveal a debt to C.'aravaggio, whose style La Tour may have learned from artists such as Honthorst.


The Penitent Magdalen (detail)

  Without seeing the Magdalen's eyes, it is not clear if she is looking at the flame or its reflection.

The candle is burning down and the flame will soon go out. It is a real flame with light and warmth, whereas the reflection is an illusion in the blackness of the rectangle.

Nothing else is reflected as the candle burns away, suggesting the passage of time.

Magdalen with the Smoking Flame
Oil on canvas, 117 x 91,8 cm
County Museum of Art, Los Angeles


Light and darkness

Georges de la Tour did not exactly choose "mean subjects," but he painted with a light-and-shade duality that relates to the Caravaggesque tradition, and he did so in a manner that verges on the simplistic. His forms are sparse, his design bare. He was a provincial painter, and his unusual freedom from accustomed conventions might well have seemed inadequate or "mean" to a classicist. The Repentant Magdalen concentrates with semibrutal fierceness on the legendary period that the Magdalen, who had been a sinner, spent in lamenting her past. But it seems rather to be the picture of abstract thought. The Magdalen is shown as lost in profound musing, her hand caressing the skull, a "vanitas" motif, which is repeated in its mirrored reflection. The candle - the only source of light - is masked by the dome of bare bone, and the Magdalen does not so much repent as muse. With great daring, the major part of the picture is more darkness, with the young woman looming up out of the shadow like a second Lazarus. It is a work hard to forget, yet its power is difficult to explain.
Vulgar? Or spiritually intense?

The Repentant Magdalen

The Repentant Magdalen (detail)

Magdalen of Night Light
Oil on canvas, 128 x 94 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Magdalen of Night Light (detail)


Working in Lorraine, Georges de La Tour developed his own very distinctive interpretation of Caravaggism. He was influenced by the work of the Dutch painters Gerrit Honthorst (1590-1656) and Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629), and it is possible that he spent time in Rome in about 1616. His strict sense of composition and effective handling of indirect light combine to create a reflective atmosphere that is imbued with a sense of inner life. Candlelit scenes are particularly associated with the artist - his first known work. The Payment of Dues (c.1615) shows a candlelit interior with figures crowded around a ledger. In The Flea Catcher, he portrays a solitary figure, creating a powerful sense of intimacy and demonstrating his trademark mastery of light and shade.

Woman Catching Fleas
Oil on canvas
Musee Historique, Nancy

Woman Catching Fleas (detail)


Woman Catching Fleas (detail)

Job Mocked by his Wife
Oil on canvas, 145 x 97 cm
Musee Departemental des Vosges, Epinal


Job Mocked by his Wife (detail)


Job Mocked by his Wife (detail)


The Payment of Dues
Oil on canvas, 99 x 152 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Lwow


St Joseph, 1642, Louvre

Dice-players, ca. 1651, probably his last work. Preston Hall Museum, Stockton-on-Tees, UK

Nativity, 1644, Louvre

The Dream of St. Joseph, c. 1628-1645, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes

The Newborn Christ, c. 1645-1648, Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes

St Sebastian tended by St Irene, 1649, Parish Broglie France


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