Georges de La Tour in Madrid

An exceptional exhibition: 31 of La Tour’s paintings

Only 40+ paintings are known by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), born in the Lorraine region, East of France. Few were signed and only four were dated. The exhibition being held by the Prado Museum is small, therefore, but exceptional, in that 31 of La Tour’s paintings are on display. 

The exhibition benefits from illustrious loans, including several from the Louvre and many from France outside Paris. Nowadays famous for his candlelight paintings, La Tour’s paintings were attributed to Spanish painters such as Murillo and Zurbaran, before his rediscovery by the German art historian Herman Voss. 

  The Fortune Teller Georges de La Tour Oil on canvas, 102 x 123 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1960

Influenced by Caravaggio’s realism

La Tour’s early works in the early 1620s were influenced by Caravaggio’s realism, in my view, as La Tour depicted the poor, blind people, peasants, beggars, and street musicians. In the early 1630s, he used the same themes (even the same titles) as Caravaggio, such, as “The Fortune Teller”. La Tour’s later works remained realist – some may be even described in today’s terms as examples of hyper realism – but his characters’ faces became softly idealised, a softness accentuated by candlelight. 

Candlelight and its reflections

Candlelight is not the only focus of La Tour’s candle paintings but its reflections in terms of light and shadows, as well as transparency effects are as important. In some paintings he partly obscures candlelight or hides the candle behind a skull, a sleeve, or a hand. In others, the candle is substituted by a charcoal stick (Boy Blowing on a Charcoal Stick) or a brazier (Girl Blowing on a Brazier). 

  Job and his Wife Georges de La Tour Oil on canvas, 145 x 99 cm. Épinal, Musée départemental d’art ancien et contemporain

Job and his Wife, one of the masterpieces on show

In Job and his Wife (Epinal, Musée départemental d’Art Ancien et Contemporain), a large rectangular portrait format painting: two characters occupy the whole canvas, the wife’s head looks bent to fit the space. A candle is lit just below the middle of the painting, illuminating the wife’s white apron covering her red dress. The candle light is reflected on Job’s knees; while his face is in the dark. There is a tender gaze between Job and his wife. The roles are inverted, the wife protects her vulnerable husband, shown naked with old skin and his hands clasped as though begging. The painting depicts Job stripped of everything he possesses and his wife rebuking him for maintaining his faith in God. 

The exhibition is not as popular as it deserves to be, comparing the attendance of the Georges de La Tour exhibition to Ingres’ (also on show at the Prado museum) or the crowds at the Madrid Realists show at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. In hindsight, I would have been happy seeing only one exhibition during my weekend in Madrid: Georges de La Tour runs at Museo Nacional del Prado until 12 June 2016. 

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