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Georges De La Tour


Jan Vermeer and Georges de La Tour were born only a generation apart. Although of different nationalities, they had much in common. For several centuries both virtually disappeared as artists and existed only as names in obscure archives. Both were finally resurrected by modern art historians. Their pictures also are equally rare - we can find fewer than forty by either, a meager number by comparison with the oeuvre of other painters. But their most significant resemblance is their preoccupation with the realistic rendering of light: Vermeer with the appearance of daylight; La Tour, more and more, with the effects of chiaroscuro and the diffusion of artificial illumination.

To discover those few pictures which can be ascribed to La Tour has been relatively simple, because a number are signed and the rest stamped with a distinctive style, but to unearth biographical material has proved nearly impossible. We know he was born at Vic sur Seille, a village about twenty kilometers from Nancy, and spent most of his life in Lunéville in the Duchy of Lorraine. In 1639, when the Duchy was absorbed by France, he was named peintre du roi, a high honor. For stylistic reasons it seems likely that he went to Rome and saw the work of Caravaggio and his followers. These tenebristi, as they were called, may have turned his attention to night scenes with their strong contrasts of light and shadow. He could, however, have learned the same lesson in Holland from Caravaggio's Northern disciple, Gerard Honthorst. His travels outside France, if they exist, are purely conjectural.

But wherever he journeyed, though he would have seen many penitent Magdalens, none would have been as beautiful as those he was to paint in Lunéville. For him this subject, which he treated at least four times, may have had some special significance. But it was in any case a popular scene, one greatly encouraged by the Church, which during the Counter Reformation emphasized penance and absolution in contrast to the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.

Is there really forgiveness, the young girl's eyes seem to ask as they stare introspectively beyond the mirror with its reflection of the skull? Her sensitive fingers caress the brain's empty case, while the concentrated power of her thought seems a kinetic force, which, like a current of air, bends the candle flame, the only source of light. Few paintings exist of greater psychological and spiritual intensity.

- From National Gallery of Art Washington

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1638-43 The Penitent Magdalen
c. 1640 The Dream of St Joseph
c. 1640 The Dream of St Joseph: DETAIL OF angel

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