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APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue

Georges de La Tour: L'Europa della Luce

Georges de La Tour, <em>The Repentant Magdalen</em>, c.1635–1640. Oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 36 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Georges de La Tour, The Repentant Magdalen, c.1635–1640. Oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 36 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
On View
Palazzo Reale
Milan, Italy

Ever since he was rediscovered in the early 20th century, French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour (1593–1652) has been shrouded in mystery and myth. Glimpsing the man’s character from his work, art historians tended to portray the master of candlelight painting as a lone genius—a sort of austere Caravaggio courting mysticism while living among the humble, working people of his native Lorraine. Thanks to the evidence uncovered in the archives of the long-dead Duchy, we now know this portrait to be a fiction. Not only was de La Tour a well-known painter in his day, one whose influences were wholly European; he was also neither saint nor a “socialist.” Ironically, the few surviving accounts describe him as an arrogant upstart intent on avoiding taxes and routinely ravaging peasants’ fields with his pack of hounds.

Georges de La Tour, The Musicians' Brawl, c.1625–1630. Oil on canvas, 34 x 55 1/2 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Georges de La Tour. L’Europa della luce—the artist’s first retrospective in Italy bringing together 16 works out of the 40-odd ones that survived to this day—sheds further light on de La Tour by placing him side by side with other artists who made the 17th century “the golden age of nocturne.” Indeed, though he likely never traveled to Italy or saw Caravaggio’s work firsthand, de La Tour came into contact with many Flemish and Dutch artists Caravaggio inspired, and with them shared a predilection for genre painting and nocturnes. Such historicizing, of course, runs the risk of spoiling the magic. Yet, if there is one thing the exhibition makes clear, it is the difference in quality between de La Tour and his contemporaries. Themes, subjects, and techniques perfectly align; still, the realism and nuance of the French master’s work instantly jump out.

Georges de La Tour, The Hurdy-gurdy Player with a Dog, 1622–1625. Oil on canvas, 73 1/4 x 47 1/4 inches. Musée du Mont-de-Piété, Bergues, France.

To realize this, one doesn’t have to go further than the show’s first room, where the visitor is welcomed by a series of Magdalens by various artists. A glance around and the eye is immediately drawn back to de La Tour’s The Repentant Magdalen (ca. 1635–40), hanging on the wall right in front of the entrance, in which de La Tour portrays the reformed prostitute brooding in the dead of night. What strikes here is de La Tour’s virtuosity but also the way he manages to get to the heart of his subject by an economy of means. Most of the picture is pitch-dark—the only source of light being a candle blocked by a skull before it. Magdalen’s face in profile is barely visible, and yet you won’t see an expression more rapt and meditative. There is no way to know what the saint is thinking, but her left hand caressing the skull in silhouette suggests that the object of her reflections is the transience of life itself.

The rest of the exhibition proceeds thematically rather than chronologically—still, a progression is observable. At the beginning of his career, de La Tour seemed to be most interested in the outward appearance of his real-life models. Wrinkled foreheads; scarred cheeks; dirty nails; garments modest and lavish—de La Tour depicted all these details with an unsparing realism normally more associated with Gustave Courbet and 19th-century naturalism than the sensual and theatrical Caravaggio. Highlights, to this end, are the two earthy portraits of the apostles St. James The Minor (ca. 1615–20) and St. Jude Thaddeus ( and The Musicians’ Brawl (ca. 1625–30), in which one quarreling vagrant is shown squeezing a lemon in his enemy’s eye to prove the mendacity of his blindness.

My absolute favorite in the batch was, however, the monumental oil painting The Hurdy-Gurdy Player with a Dog (ca. 1622–25). Standing at almost two meters tall, this work in terms of composition, gestures, and dramatic use of chiaroscuro is one of the least complex and refined of the show—the game of hands and glances that makes so much of de La Tour’s later paintings so enigmatic is completely absent, save the little dog on the bottom left which seems to look at us imploringly. De La Tour does not attempt to ennoble his subject—the player’s gaze is blank, his mouth half-open to show the rotten teeth, and it’s unclear whether what sticks out of the man’s trousers are his underpants or his penis. It reminded me of Luis Buñuel’s film Viridiana (1961), another masterpiece in which poverty is shown in all its unvarnished ugliness and alterity.

Georges de La Tour, Job Taunted by His Wife, c.1650. Oil on canvas, 57 x 38 inches. Musée départemental d'Art ancien et contemporain, Épinal, France.

As the artist grew older, rough realism progressively gave way to a more pared-down and rarefied style. This is perfectly evinced, for example, in two of the last paintings de La Tour worked on in his life, The Denial of Saint Peter (1650) and The Dice Players (ca. 1650–51), whose extreme stylization and geometric simplification somehow prefigures Cézanne and Cubism. More poignant and touching than these artificial genre paintings are, however, the religious nocturnes on view in the last rooms of the show. St. John the Baptist in the Desert (ca. 1649-51) is a triumph of de La Tour’s “less-is-more” approach and his ultimate celebration of ascetic solitude. However, if one artwork stands out from the mature phase of de La Tour’s production, it is Job Taunted by His Wife.

Painted in 1650, it portrays Job as a decrepit old man whose body is ravaged by blisters and sores staring up at a beautiful, finely dressed young woman who is talking down to him while holding a candle. Like St. John the Baptist, the painting is another moving affirmation of stoic life sustained by faith in God. Yet what really catches the eye is the somewhat tense domestic intimacy de La Tour manages to portray between the figures, the wife’s dress almost shielding her husband’s frail body—a testament to the fact that, though in his art he often warned against its illusory and impermanent nature, reality with its minutiae had a magnetizing hold on de La Tour till the very end.


Bartolomeo Sala

Bartolomeo Sala is a literary scout, freelance reader, and reviewer based in London.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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