Georges de La Tour (1593-1652)
One of the great French Baroque artists, indeed one of the finest Old Masters of Baroque art in Europe, Georges de La Tour led a highly successful career in Luneville in the Duchy of Lorraine. His patrons included Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu and the Duke of Lorraine, and he became official court painter to Louis XIV. La Tour is best remembered as one of France's leading exponents of Caravaggism, the style of realism and tenebrism associated with Caravaggio (1571-1610) - the wild child of the early Italian Baroque - which La Tour is believed to have absorbed either from a visit to Italy, or from Gerrit Honthorst (1590-1656), the leader of the Utrecht caravaggisti. La Tour's later work also exemplifies the features of French classicism as initiated by his younger contemporaries Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-82). Confusingly, there are few recorded details of La Tour's life. In consequence, there has been a huge amount of scholarly dispute over the chronology of his life, while the precise attribution of his paintings, many of which exist in several versions, but only three of which are dated - The Payment of Taxes (1643, Lvov Art Gallery, Ukraine); The Penitent St Peter (1645, Museum of Art, Cleveland); and The Denial of St Peter (1650, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes) - rests mainly on stylistic comparisons.
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As for genres and the like, La Tour focused almost exclusively on religious art and on genre painting. Other examples of La Tour's work include: The Organ Grinder (1625, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes); St Jerome (1630, National Museum, Stockholm); The Card Sharp (1635, Louvre); St Irene with the Wounded St. Sebastian (1640, Louvre); Young Christ with St Joseph in the Carpenter's Shop (1642, Louvre); Job Mocked by his Wife (1643, Epinal Museum); The Magdalen of the Candle (1644, Louvre); The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds (1647, Louvre) and The Dream of St Joseph (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes). Although famous in his day, La Tour was forgotten for over 250 years before being rediscovered in 1915 by Hermann Voss. Ever since, his reputation has continued to grow, aided in particular by the much-publicized purchase by the Metropolitan Museum NY of La Diseuse de Bonne Aventure (The Fortune-Teller) in 1960 - one of his best Baroque paintings - and the exhibition devoted to him in 1972 at the Orangerie in Paris.
La Tour was the second son of a baker, a trade which his mother's family also followed. However, he seems to have received a good education and to have profited when learning the basics of his craft from the brilliant artistic milieu which had sprung up in Lorraine, centred on Bellange. It seems possible that between 1610 and 1616 he visited Italy and felt there the influence of Caravaggio which superseded the principles of Mannerism in which he had been trained. Certainly, in his home town after 1616 La Tour's style appears to be fully formed.
Marriage, Artistic Recognition
In July 1617 La Tour married Diane Le Nerf, a daughter of the Duke of Lorraine's finance minister, and descended from a noble family. After the death of her father the couple moved to his wife's town of Luneville where La Tour was granted citizen's rights in 1620 and exempted from paying certain taxes, an honour normally reserved for the nobility. He soon became rich, and led the life of a country squire, clinging determinedly to wealth and privilege in a land which, from 1635 on, was to be cruelly ravaged by war, famine and epidemics.
Early on in his career, in 1623, La Tour had attracted the patronage of the Duke of Lorraine, and the renown that this brought him continued even when the duchy was occupied by French troops. La Tour became painter to Louis XIII and also enjoyed the personal esteem of the Govenor of Lorraine, the Marechal de la Ferte, for whom he painted a Nativity (1644), a St Alexis (1648), a St Sebastian and a Denial of St Peter (1650; probably the painting in Nantes Museum). His works fetched high prices (600-700 francs or more).
La Tour appears to have been at the height of his fame when he fell victim to an epidemic on 30th January 1652, a few days after his wife and valet. His son Etienne La Tour (1621-92), who had collaborated on his paintings from 1646 onwards, succeeded him as peintre ordinaire du roi in 1654 but, being a wealthy man, soon ceased to follow this commoner's occupation and rose rapidly in social circles (being received into the peerage in 1670), which probably explains why his father's work was so quickly forgotten.
Oeuvre of Georges de La Tour
Reassembled around the handful of signed canvases, some 75 La Tour compositions have been identified, of which 35 are accepted as original. They consist exclusively of religious or genre scenes; there is no portrait art, no mythological or history painting, and no examples of drawing. The numerous early copies (St Sebastian mourned by St Irene, 11 copies known, original lost) show how famous some of his works were.
The majority of La Tour's oil painting can be divided between daytime and night-time scenes. The first are notable for their cold, clear light, and a precise, swift, style (The Penitent St Jerome, Stockholm; The Hurdy-Gurdy Player, Nantes). The night scenes on the other hand make use of artificial lighting in order to exclude colour - normally only splashes of bright red bring life to the range of browns - and to reduce volumes to a few simple planes which have often led to these canvases being described as 'Cubist' (Saint Sebastien, original versions, Chapel of Bois-Anzeray, Eure, and Gemaldegalerie, Berlin).
Chronology of Paintings
Few of the paintings bear a definite date (The Repentant St Peter, 1645, Cleveland Museum; The Denial of St Peter, 1650, Nantes Museum) and this has led to disagreement among experts as to the precise chronology of the other, undated works. However, it is possible to distinguish a first period (1620-30), clearly marked by Caravaggesque realism and very close in style to, say, Dirk van Baburen (1590-1624) or Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629) (series Christ and the Twelve Apostles, two surviving originals and nine copies, Albi Museum; The Tears of St Peter, lost, but engraved during the 18th century). It was not until the 1630s that La Tour moved towards a more personal realism (The Hurdy-Gurdy Player, Nantes Museum).
The upheavals in Lorraine (1635-42), and in particular the destruction by fire in 1638 of La Tour's early works, probably led the painter to move to Paris between about 1638 and 1642. Here, he painted some impressive daytime scenes (The Fortune-Teller, Metropolitan Museum; The Card-Sharp, Louvre) and, more particularly, some night scenes (a Saint Sebastien was offered to Louis XIII). After his return to Luneville in 1643 he produced his great series of night paintings, featuring the maximum dramatic effects of tenebrism and chiaroscuro (like The Newborn Child (Rennes Museum), Saint Sebastien (Bois-Anzeray and Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, probably 1649), Job Mocked by his Wife (Epinal Museum). The last years were probably marked by increasing collaboration from his son Etienne and a return to already worked-on compositions (The Dice-Players, Teesside Museums, UK).
La Tour's range of subject matter was limited and he invariably repeated the themes of his Caravaggesque period of 1610 to 1620: they include The Fortune-Teller; The Prodigal Son; The Repentant Magdalene and The Denial of St Peter. The years in Lorraine seemed to produce only a few additional themes (The Discovery of the Body of St Alexis, The Hurdy-Gurdy Player). But instead of pushing this style in the direction of the picturesque, as did most of his northern contemporaries, La Tour renewed his links with the early followers of Caravaggio, like them finding in painting the best means of studying the soul of man.
La Tour kept his pictures down to essentials, and his world is surely the least cluttered of any great painter's. He excluded the anecdotal, subsidiary figures, buildings, description of interiors, landscape (no place allocated to nature; not a single plant, and only two or three animals); even accessories are reduced to the bare minimum (no haloes on saints, nor wings on angels), to the point where some of the figures are highly enigmatic (The Dream of St Joseph, Nantes Museum). Even the most violent gestures are frozen into a kind of geometrical stasis (The Brawl, Los Angeles, P. Getty Museum) and the feeling of immobility and silence dominates his work (The Woman with the Flea, Nancy Museum).
By apparently simple means, but often, in fact, as a result of unexpected boldness, he achieves an intensity surprising even among the followers of Caravaggio. Whether he is depicting human weakness: physical deterioration or, by contrast, the secret, and fragile dignity of man's inner life, his works reflect both the stoicism of the era and the mysticism of Lorraine and must be ranked amongst the highest spiritual manifestations of the day. Paintings by Georges de La Tour can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world, including the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.