Georges de La Tour was a painter from Lorraine, baptized on March 14, 1593 in Vic-sur-Seille and died on January 30, 1652 in Lunéville.
An artist at the confluence of Nordic, Italian and French cultures, contemporary of Jacques Callot and the Le Nain brothers, La Tour was a penetrating observer of everyday reality. His pronounced taste for the play of light and shadow makes him one of the most original continuators of Caravaggio.
Georges de La Tour was baptized on March 14, 1593 in Vic-sur-Seille, seat of the bailliage of the Bishopric of Metz, annexed “de facto” by the king of France in 1552. The baptismal record of Georges de La Tour, preserved in the Georges-de-La-Tour departmental museum in Vic-sur-Seille, indicates that he was the son of “Jean de la Tour, baker” and Sibylle Molian, also from a baker”s family. He is the second of seven children in the family.
His background, and particularly his early training, remains unknown. He began his career as a painter and may have met the Dutch masters of the Caravaggesque school in Utrecht, Gerrit van Honthorst and Hendrick ter Brugghen, during a trip in 1616. It has been suggested that he traveled to Rome where he discovered the work of Caravaggio, but there is no evidence of this, and while he was clearly influenced by Caravaggio, this influence seems to have been passed on to him through his knowledge of the work of Hendrick ter Brugghen, a painter to whom he has often been compared. He would thus be one of the few French painters of the time who did not undertake the classic trip to Italy.
On July 2, 1617, he married Diane Le Nerf, a member of a noble family from Lunéville, a town in the Duchy of Lorraine. The couple settled in this city where La Tour began a brilliant career under the reign of Duke Henry II of Lorraine, an admirer of Caravaggio and married to an Italian princess, Marguerite de Gonzague, niece of the Queen Mother of France. In 1619, he moved to the court of the Château de Lunéville. In 1620, he was even received as a “bourgeois” of the city, endowed by the Duke with letters of exemption which granted him the franchises granted to members of the nobility. He himself became one of the richest inhabitants of Lunéville and received numerous commissions from the bourgeoisie and nobility of Lorraine, although he did not succeed in becoming the official painter of Duke Henry II, this office being then the prerogative of Claude Deruet.
But from 1633, Lorraine, which had been prosperous and safe until then but had recently been ruled by the clumsy Duke Charles IV, sank into the destruction of the Thirty Years” War. The duchy was invaded and occupied by France and became one of the battlefields of Europe at war. In 1635, the Swedish troops ravaged the region, spreading death and desolation. The Croats were no less cruel and greedy. Lunéville, where La Tour lived, was burned down in September 1638 and the painter was forced to flee the city to take refuge with his family in Nancy, where he was found from February 8, 1639. The king of France tried to attach himself to the Lorrain artists. If Jacques Callot refused, Georges de La Tour accepted and went to Paris. It is known that in 1639 he received the title of “ordinary painter of the king” as well as a lodging in the Louvre, the king Louis XIII having a Saint Sebastian cured by Irene of his hand. But his possessions and privileges were at home, in Lorraine, and as soon as his house was rebuilt, in 1641, he returned to Lunéville. He was always successful, since the Duke de la Ferté, French governor of the Duchy of Lorraine, was offered a painting by the master for his birthday present – especially of night scenes – the first being a Nativity in January 1645.
The works of the end of his life represent exclusively religious scenes – although marked by genre painting – probably, according to the critic Anthony Blunt, because of the renewed importance of religious life due to the Franciscans in Lorraine after the Thirty Years” War, Lorraine being still occupied by the French soldiery. According to his death certificate, Georges de la Tour died of “pleurisy” on January 30, 1652 in Lunéville, but probably from an epidemic that first took his wife Diane on January 15, 1652 and his valet Jean “dit Montauban” on January 22. His work quickly sinks into oblivion.
His son Etienne (born in 1621), who had been his apprentice, was the only heir of the painter with two sisters who did not marry. He then realized his father”s dream: to buy the freehold estate of Mesnil near Lunéville, and to gain his letters of nobility, in order to forget his commoner origin. He died in 1692.
Very famous in his time, Georges de la Tour then fell into oblivion. His works were dispersed and attributed to other painters: Italians, such as Guido Reni, Carlo Saraceni or Orazio Gentileschi, Dutch, such as Hendrick Terbrugghen or Gerrit van Honthorst, and sometimes even Spaniards, such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Velázquez. Very few of his paintings are signed, and sometimes his signature has been deliberately erased to create a more prestigious attribution for the time.
No relics of La Tour”s life have been identified so far: portraits, personal objects, books, homes, as well as his grave, all seem to have disappeared.
Mérimée in Notes d”un voyage dans l”Ouest de la France, then, Stendhal, in Les Mémoires d”un touriste, published in 1838, discovering the Old Man Playing the Vielle, both attribute it to the school of Seville, speaking of Murillo or Velasquez.
His Newborn in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rennes was attributed to Le Nain by Hippolyte Taine in 1863, while Louis Gonse, in 1900, mentioned the names of Rembrandt, Vermeer and an unidentified caravagist.
Some of his paintings can even be found under the name of Quentin de La Tour, because of the proximity of the surname to that of the painter from Lorraine, even though he was born more than a century after Georges de La Tour and painted in a completely different style.
Georges de La Tour was rediscovered only in 1915, by the German art historian Hermann Voss (1884-1969) from two paintings in the Nantes Museum of Art, The Appearance of the Angel to Saint Joseph and The Denial of Saint Peter, which are signed and one of them dated, which is very rare in La Tour”s work, allowing Voss to immediately attribute to him The Newborn of the Rennes museum (the third painting of Nantes, The Old Man, will be attributed only in 1931). The work of Hermann Voss – who relied in particular on the earlier and somewhat ignored work of Alexandre Joly in 1863 – made it possible to reattribute several paintings with daylight – and rightly placed Georges de La Tour among the greatest “French” painters of the 17th century, even though he was a Lorrain.
An exhibition entitled “Les Peintres de la Réalité en France au XVIIe siècle” (The Painters of Reality in France in the 17th Century), organized at the Musée de l”Orangerie from November 1934 to February 1935, allowed the public to discover him. It was the first time that thirteen of the fifteen paintings then attributed to the artist were brought together and it was a revelation. In 1948, a thesis by François-Georges Pariset reinforced Voss” work.
Since then, work and studies on the work of Georges de La Tour have multiplied and have allowed the identification of a production of about one hundred paintings, of which about forty have survived: he is thus considered today as one of the greatest and original French masters of his time. In 1960, his Fortune Teller was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which provoked a controversy over the authorization of the departure of such an important work from French territory, and a new exhibition was devoted to the painter at the Orangerie in 1972.
Contemporary artists insist on the influence that Georges de La Tour has had or may still have on their works. Richelet claims to be inspired by him for his representations of emaciated bodies inspired by his Saint Jérôme pénitent.
Vic-sur-Seille, his native town in Lorraine, has dedicated a museum to him, the Georges-de-La-Tour departmental museum, which brings together, among other things, works from the painter”s time and school, as well as a recently acquired painting by his hand (Saint John the Baptist in the Desert) and a Head of a Woman that was probably part of a larger painting that has disappeared.
Description of his work
The early works of de La Tour are characterized by the influence of Caravaggio, probably via his Dutch followers, particularly in the choice of genre scenes featuring cheating and deception (The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds or The Fortune Teller, for example) or hobo brawls (themes that were popularized by the Dutch artists). These works are to be placed relatively early in the painter”s career – before 1640 at any rate. His early works also show the influence of the Lorraine painter Jacques Bellange.
La Tour is particularly famous for the chiaroscuro effects he introduced into his night scenes, a technique he developed far better than any of his northern European predecessors, while transferring its use, until then reserved for genre painting by the Dutch, to religious subjects. Unlike Caravaggio, La Tour”s religious paintings do not present dramatic or theatrical effects or monumentalization of the figures, so that they can easily be confused with genre scenes, those scenes of daily life of which Flemish and Dutch painting of the time was fond: The Nativity in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rennes is one of the best examples. Paulette Choné evokes the hypothesis that this painting could only represent an ordinary nativity, that it would be about a newborn child and not Jesus Christ, but she immediately rejects it “especially because of the symbolic density, the almost liturgical gravity of the servant”s gesture. This second phase in his pictorial production began in the 1640”s. The geometric compositions and simplification of forms that he implemented clearly show the particularity of his approach to chiaroscuro and the lessons of Caravaggio, which clearly placed him on the fringe of the tenebrist movement of José de Ribera and the Italian followers of Caravaggio. His style seems to be without equal. His chromatic palette is characterized by harmonies of reds, browns and whites with very few dissonant colors. The use of a slight simplification of forms, the great precision of the drawing for the details and the absence, in his paintings, of composition built around violent lines so common in Caravaggio”s painting are all characteristics of the art of Georges de La Tour.
The unique style he developed, as well as his predilection for tightly framed nocturnal subjects, where the source of light is most of the time only a candle, also often make it possible to immediately recognize a painting as being by his hand or, at least, by his school.
He often painted several versions of the same painting (such as the Cheat with an Ace) but his output – or what remains of it – is relatively small. His son Étienne, his works having often been imitated or copied, as well as the lack of sources and documents on his life and work, make it often difficult to establish the corpus of works by Georges de La Tour, only about thirty having been reliably attributed to him. The work of attribution is therefore not yet complete.
The relationship between literature and painting: how did his pictorial work permeate literature?
The relationship between literature and painting is close: for many years, painting was not autonomous but under the tutelage of literature. Moreover, painting had a properly religious and political function. Georges de La Tour was himself appointed painter of King Louis XIII, and thus a court painter before he was forgotten. Little by little, literature referred more and more to painting, either “by mimetic competition or by fascination for its aesthetic autonomy”, according to the words of Daniel Bergez. Georges de La Tour is a painter of the seventeenth century, but his work since its rediscovery in the 1930s, has been the subject of many writers. The book, as an object, is a recurring element in the representations of Georges de La Tour. It allows the painter to exercise his pictorial technique of light: it offers the possibility of playing with the light on its various angles. The book is an exercise in style for the painter. The most represented book is without question the Bible. Georges de La Tour is no exception to this general remark: we know that the mastery of light is an important part of his work through his use of tenebrism. In addition, he depicted many religious subjects featuring the Vulgate. We can cite Saint Jerome Penitent which perfectly illustrates the idea of dialogue and tension between the image and the book as well as The Apparition of the Angel to Saint Joseph also called the Dream of Saint Joseph. From the nineteenth century, painting becomes a source of creation for literature; either the writer tries to restore a pictorial rendering with his style, or literature is transformed into a writing of painting. Finally, in the twentieth century, writers were inspired by pictorial art in a poetic aim among which we find famous surrealists such as André Breton and Paul Eluard. We can also mention: René Char, Henri Michaux, Jean Tardieu, Jacques Prévert, Michel Leiris, Philippe Jaccottet, Michel Butor, Yves Bonnefoy… The relationship between literature and painting is sometimes difficult to grasp, as the reference to a work may be implicit or clearly mentioned in the text. Through a stylistic approach to literary texts, it is sometimes possible to discover the link between text and image, by a writer with Georges de La Tour.
René Char discovered Georges de La Tour, during an exhibition organized at the Orangerie (Paris) from November 1934 to February 1935: it was entitled “Les Peintres de la Réalité en France au XVIIe siècle”. He devoted various writings to the painter, a text on The Prisoner. René Char dialogues with the painting by involving it in the context of the Second World War: “Hitler”s darkness”. Another text of René Char, extracted again from Fureur et mystère, pays homage to the Madeleine à la veilleuse . In The Lost Nude, Char writes a text entitled “Justesse de Georges de La Tour” and in which he alludes to various paintings of the painter such as The cheater or The old man.
André Malraux published in 1951 Les Voix du silence, a collection of different essays on art. He expresses his fascination for the work of Georges de La Tour, especially his mastery of lighting. Malraux talks about the details of La Tour”s pictorial style: the line of a profile, the shapes or the lighting. He compares La Tour with other painters: Cézanne, Uccello, Giotto etc.
Pascal Quignard published an essay entitled Georges de La Tour in 1991. Pascal Quignard sees in the representations of the painter a mystical spirituality. Thus, he expresses that the flame in Georges de La Tour: “it is God”. He speaks of “the meditative night of Georges de La Tour” in The Sexual Night. Quignard also writes: “a thought absorbs them” speaking about the figures painted by La Tour.
Charles Juliet wrote an article in Télérama in which he slipped into the shoes of Georges de La Tour. He chose to write his text in the first person singular. He focuses on the use of light in the works of Georges de La Tour and on the general themes he gives it. Charles Juliet describes several paintings in fragments, isolating the most striking elements.