Georges de La Tour: painter of light

Joseph the carpenter. 1642 Louvre.
Joseph the carpenter. 1642 Louvre.

Georges de La Tour: painter of light

Georges de La Tour (March 14, 1593 – January 30, 1652) – Lorraine and French painter, caravaggist and master of chiaroscuro. In the XVIII-XIX centuries, his name was forgotten.
Latour is an enigmatic artist. He left behind many unfinished paintings and no documents. Therefore, art critics continue to argue which works really belong to his brush.

Creativity Latour falls on the first half of the XVII century: he worked during the reign of Louis XIII. The artist was of interest to the imperial court, and some of his works were purchased. But until the end of his life, Latour remained a provincial and worked in the small town of Luneville. By the end of the 17th century, his name was forgotten, and it was discovered already at the beginning of the 20th century.

The circumstances of Latour’s life are unclear, the origins of creativity are incomprehensible. The peculiarity of the artist’s style is the light inside the picture, to which he attaches tremendous importance, and which is a through theme in his works. His paintings are imbued with the spirit of Caravaggio, but the artist was not associated with Italy.

Biblical events Latour comprehends as genre scenes, but an elementary and unpretentious event is filled with new meaning.

Newborn 1640.
Newborn 1640.

“Newborn”, 1640

Two women are depicted – an elderly and a young one. A young woman holds the swaddled body of a newly born baby. There is no indication here that Latour is depicting Christmas. Perhaps this is just a genre scene depicting care, attention to a new life.

But the two heroines are deeply focused, and especially the young mother. The artist works with lighting: Anna holds a candle in her left hand, blocking the light from us with her right. As a result, the entire stream of a weak light source falls on the baby’s head. And although there is nothing here that would hint at the holiness of the event, we understand its significance.

The flow of light is so strong that it evokes the feeling of a significant scene, a sacrament.

Georges de La Tour Mary Magdalene 1638 1643.
Mary Magdalene 1638 1643.

“Mary Magdalene”, 1638-1643

The solution to the composition “Mary Magdalene” is similar. No alternatives are given here. We understand that before us is not an ordinary girl in front of the flame of an oil lamp, but a biblical heroine in a certain state of mind. She has books on the table, a cross, a whip, which involves the torture of the flesh.

The girl is almost turned away from the viewer. The light source stands inside space, in the middle spatial zone. Her figure is pushed a little closer to the picture plane. And we, just like the heroine of the picture, find ourselves in the field of attraction of the flame of an oil lamp.

It is impossible to take your eyes off the intense vertical flame: we are following the heroine, fascinated looking at this flame. And we understand that the woman sitting here does not just contemplate this fire, she, through this fire, plunges into the world of important experiences, the result of which is spiritual development.

Caravaggio uses a similar artistic technique when he paints Mary Magdalene asleep in an empty room. Sleep turns into a state of catharsis, which shows the course of internal mental changes.

Latour finds a new formula for the same process. Mary Magdalene does not abandon her life path, she moves on. Inside the chamber, dimly lit space, the center of the composition of which is light, there is concentration and that inner spiritual work that will lead to changes inside, and not outside.

Georges de La Tour Playing cards 1635
Playing cards 1635
“Playing cards”, 1635

A work that allows you to get a little closer to the possible origins of the artist’s style. On the one hand, this property is to generalize, it is a closed form, abstracted from specific real portrait features, which the artist uses. Although we understand that each of the characters here is characteristic.

Latour details the image: costume decoration, glass vessel, coins and fabrics are lovingly painted. And in the transfer of these details, we see the art school not of the 17th, but of the 15th century, the early naturalism of the Dutch persuasion. The artist is simply immersed in the materialism of the surrounding world, which closes on every form – a pearl, a precious stone, an embroidery pattern, laces, feathers. All this is woven into a fantastic picturesque ensemble.

Georges de La Tour. Georges de Latour. Saint Joseph is a joiner. 1640
Georges de La Tour. Saint Joseph is a joiner. 1640

This is an attention to detail and their convincing depiction, somewhat outdated for the 17th century. By the 17th century, painting goes further and already passes through this stage. But before us is a unique, still not fully known provincial artist. The origins of his work go back to the Renaissance past. It manifests itself in the combination of new themes, principles of constructing genre scenes with intrigue, while maintaining interest in detail, the accuracy of conveying the objective characteristics of the objective world.

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