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Saint Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene

Jan Van Scorel (1495-1562). Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam. 1528.

Mary Magdalene

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898). Szépmúvészeti Múzeum – Budapest. 1897.

Mary Magdalene

Jules-Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1912). The State Hermitage Museum. St Petersburg. 1876.

Mary Magdalene is one of the major figures of the Gospels. The Evangelist writers mention a Mary in various instances. These figures have been brought together by tradition into one. A Mary anointed Jesus’s feet in Simon the Pharisee’s house. Luke does not give this woman a name, but John does and calls her Mary of Bethany. This Mary apparently is the same as the woman listening intently to Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary. Luke calls Mary a lady out of whom he exorcised seven devils. Mary of Magdala then is one of the followers of Jesus and she is also present at the Crucifixion, the Entombment. She is the first person to whom Jesus shows himself after the Resurrection. But there is a strange message in this Resurrection scene. Jesus asks Mary not to cling to him for he has not yet ascended to God. Was this plea only for Mary in particular or directed to just any human being capable to retain Jesus on earth?

Luke 7:36 . One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, suddenly a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment G38 .

John 11:1 . There was a man named Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister, Martha and he was ill. It was the same Mary, the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair G38 .

Luke 8:1 . Now it happened that after this Jesus made his way through the towns and villages preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna and many others who provided for them out of their own resources G38 .

Luke 10:38 . In the course of their journey Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Martha scolds her sister for not lending a helping hand. But Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her G38 .”

John 19:25 . Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala G38 .

John 20:1 . It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved G38 .

John 20:11 . Mary was standing outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, as she wept, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, and the other at the feet. They said, “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” As she said this she turned round and saw Jesus standing there G38 .

John 20:16 . Jesus said, “Mary!” She turned round then and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbuni” – which means Master. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to the brothers and tell them: I am ascending to my father and your Father, my God and your God G38 .”

Mary Magdalene was considered a courtesan, in any case a sinner. She is sometimes co-identified with another Mary, Mary of Egypt. This Mary was in the fifth century a harlot of Alexandria who travelled to Jerusalem and had a vision there of Christ. She converted to Christianism and lived as a hermit beyond the Jordan region. This story may have led to another story told in the ‘Golden Legend’ according to which Mary Magdalene lived as a hermit in the Provence region of Southern France.

Mary’s cognomen ‘Magdalene’ would have come from Magdalum, the name of one of her ancestral properties according to the ‘Golden Legend’. She was wellborn. Her father’s name was Syrus; her mother was called Eucharia. The ‘Golden Legend’ says she was of royal stock and her family owned several towns of which Magdalum was given to Mary. She was renowned for her beauty but also for the way she gave her body to pleasure. After the Resurrection of Jesus Peter had given Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus, Martha’s maid Martilla and Cedonius the blind who had been cured by Jesus as well as many other Christians in the custody of Maximin.

Unbelievers send off Maximin, Lazarus, Martha and Mary and the others in a boat without oars, sail or rudder. The travel was fraught with miracles. When the boat set off, Sarah the black servant of the two Maries had been retained on the shore and she despaired to get into the boat. Mary, mother of James and John would have thrown her cloak in the sea, which served as a raft for Sarah to reach the other companions.

An angel guided the boat miraculously to a site that is now the small town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the delta of the Rhône River. But according to the ‘Golden Legend’ the boat coasted directly at the old port of Marseilles. Mary and her companions Christianised the Provence from there. Martha left for Tarascon; Lazarus became the apostle of Marseilles. Maximin and Cedonius evangelised Aix-en-Provence, where Maximin became the first bishop of Aix. Mary Magdalene ’s place was the village of Sainte Baume, called after Magdalene’s balms, which is currently still her pilgrimage site. The village is now called Saint-Maximin-de-la-Sainte-Baume and the cave of Mary is the pilgrimage site. Mary’s cave is in a dramatic landscape where a high plateau descends abruptly to lower country. Magdalene’s pilgrimage site is still visited yearly by more than two hundred thousand people. It was a pilgrimage site where France’s kings came to pray and a road there is still called the ‘Road of the Kings’.

The two other Maries and Sarah stayed in the Camargue, the estuary of the Rhône river and when they died their relics remained in Saintes-Maries. This site became the most famous pilgrimage of the Gypsies of Europe. Their patron saint is the black Sarah. The Gypsies wear the relics and the boat of the Maries in procession every year.

Mary Magdalene stayed near Sainte Baume. She was found by a priest who had built himself a cell near the place without a stream or comfort of grass or trees where Mary lived. When her last hour came, Mary asked the priest to go to Maximin and to tell him that at Resurrection day she would descend the mountains and be in the church of Aix, waited upon by angels. So happened. Mary Magdalene received the last sacraments of Saint Maximin, bishop of Aix. Then she lay down full length before the steps of the altar and expired.

While Mary Magdalene lived alone in her cave, seven times a day angels came down to elevate her to the heavens and show her the joy of living near Jesus and the saints. She heard the glorious chants of the celestial hosts. This site is close to the village of Saint-Maximin, high on a promontory above her supposed cave in the rocks, and a column has been dressed in remembrance so that the place in now called Saint-Pilon. A road goes from Mary’s cave to Saint-Pilon. In the eleventh century rumours ran that the relics of Mary Magdalene would have been brought to the famous abbey of Vézelay so that the pilgrimages to Saint Mary Magdalene continued there. But in 1279, Charles of Anjou found back the relics in the nearby village of Saint-Maximin so that the pilgrimages to Mary’s cave of Sainte Baume returned. Sainte Baume was one of the great pilgrimage sites of Europe and of the Provence, a place that attracted the Provence kings, the Avignon Popes and also of course Saint Louis King of France.

One of the first compelling images of Mary Magdalene is Donatello’s statue. In that famous sculpture, now in the Opera del Duomo of Florence, Mary is nude but covered entirely by long floating hair. This long hair has become since Donatello a symbol of the sensuality of Mary Magdalene. She is the ultimate penitent. Mary is a symbol of hope and forgiveness, a recurring theme in the Gospels. She is a message of Jesus to all adulterous women, and to prostitutes. There are many such examples whereby Jesus drew to himself sinners and small people. The early church thus appealed to vast masses of people and founded its religion on some of the most powerful emotions, which lived in humans, the emotions of love.

Jan van Scorel

Jan van Scorel painted a magnificent portrait of Mary Magdalene for which he certainly used a Dutch girl as model. Van Scorel was one of the first Dutch painters in want of an own style, different from the overpowering influences of Southern Netherlands painters. He had travelled to Italy and had brought back memories of Italian Renaissance pictures. ‘Mary Magdalene ’ is shown as an early Renaissance picture. It was a pictorial success for van Scorel who proved his considerable skills of portraiture.

Mary Magdalene is dressed in a magnificently detailed robe. She carries with her the jar of ointments, her symbol from the story in the house of Simon. She has the conventional long hair and a décolleté that in this painting is covered prudently by a transparent veil. Van Scorel has well-proportioned Mary Magdalene. He has given her a normal, not an alluring pose in half profile. He gave her the face of a virtuous girl. Yet, she looks defiantly directly at the viewer. Van Scorel particularly took care in the depiction of her hands. Behind Mary is on the one side a rocky landscape with her cave. Shown also is the legend of her daily elevations to heaven. To the left we find the symbols of Jesus’s Redemption: a dead tree trunk representing the old Law and a tree with luxurious foliage, which indicates the joyful life in Christ. Thus, a subtle reference to Jesus accompanies the portrait.

However finely drawn, the picture of Jan van Scorel does not radiate spirituality. It is an exquisite portrait that could have been made to prove without doubt the considerable skills of the painter to van Scorel’s commissioners. Van Scorel’s professionalism is evident and the portrait indeed can take its place among the finest of its age.

Puvis de Chavannes

A picture that is entirely different and does radiate spirituality is Puvis de Chavannes’ ‘Mary Magdalene ’. Puvis’ Mary Magdalene is sitting in the desert. Her back is supported by the rocky landscape in which she lived in solitude. She is almost nude; there is no brocaded robe here. She wears long straw-yellow hair. Mary Magdalene is shown while in meditation, turned inside, with eyes that look expressionless into the far. She may have been caught at her morning toilet in the Provence. That region’s warm, bright light pervades the whole picture so as to whiten all colours. There are almost no shadows in the diffuse light, except the minimum that is necessary on Mary Magdalene to make the volume of the figure credible. This light is everywhere, on Mary and on the canyon. The colours are so light and diffuse because Puvis de Chavannes used the tones of frescoes, which were always paler than those of oil paintings. These are the colours of transcendence, so they match well with the concept of a saint and hermit who lived in the Provence where that wonderful light is indeed remarkable. And of course, Mary lived halfway heaven.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was born in Lyon in 1824 and died in Paris in 1898. He is counted to a movement in painting called Symbolism. Symbolism was a late outcome of the Romantic Movement whereby its artists sought inward spirituality. Art and the artists could create independently of appraisal and independently of any admiration of viewers. The Symbolists were Gods in their own thoughts, as they themselves proclaimed in their literature and poetry. The centre of their inspiration for themes was the personal mind. The Symbolist movement was created in the 1880’s in France from an intellectual reaction to the realism and obsession with the direct awareness of nature of the Impressionist painters.

Puvis de Chavannes however, more than belonging to this Symbolist movement, invented his own style of representation and his own feeling of colours. He dedicated himself to the career of an artist. He first went to Florence, but returned to France in 1847. He entered the studio of Henri Scheffer, the brother of the more famous Dordrecht Dutch painter Ari Scheffer. He soon went back to Italy. He became impregnated with Italian classicism and with a certain aristocratic spirit for art detached from everyday reality, which shows in his subsequent works. He studied under Eugène Delacroix and Thomas Couture, and the great Chassériau also influenced him. Chassériau’s mistress was the Princess Mary Cantacuzène, born of Rumanian nobility and married to the Prince Alexander Cantacuzène. She had left her husband and had come to Paris around 1850. Puvis de Chavannes met her in the workshop of Chassériau around 1856. She remained with him and he would marry her very late in life, around 1897. He made not only a marvellous portrait of her, now in the Museum of Lyon, but Mary Cantacuzène was also a frequent model for various female figures in Puvis de Chavannes’ pictures.

Puvis de Chavannes positioned himself as a decorator who made large murals, but more on large canvases than in fresco. He had success and painted scenes for the Parisian Pantheon as well as many murals for official buildings in France. His light colours resemble the tones of old Italian frescoes. The adjective mostly used for these Puvis colours is ‘chalky’. Puvis de Chavannes’ figures are mostly static, and aristocratic in stature, as figures in an idealised world draped in a haze. Puvis de Chavannes is the painter of stillness, of awkward melancholic and sad, inward quietness. His ‘Mary Magdalene’ is an example of this particular style.

Mary Magdalene is shown nude, but her nudity is not provocative. Her simple, white robe has fallen to her knees. She is alone in the mountains. A few bushes of yellow flowers grow around her, in the same colour as her hair and body. The atmosphere has taken the hues of the figure. Nature and person only make one, have become blended in contours and colours. The figure forms as much space as the vastness behind her. This is a very unusual Mary Magdalene. She is not dressed in beautiful gowns as she was depicted in previous centuries and her symbols like the ointment jar are not present in the picture. She is not shown as a courtesan, but just as a lady who has decided to live with bare means in a mountainous desert. Even her long hair is mostly hidden behind her shoulders. Her gown has fallen off, in a classic pose that Puvis de Chavannes used again and again in his images.

Puvis de Chavannes has pictured Mary Magdalene as a figure of spirituality, as a mystic figure that combined past sensuality and profound transcendence. Thus, the painter has shown Mary Magdalene as a symbol of purification of a human being. The bright diffuse light and the pale colours enhance the impression of a vision coming out of a dream, suddenly revealed to the artist.

Jules-Joseph Lefebvre

Among the many themes from the life and legends of Mary Magdalene there is one that is at the least surprising. Several stories from the Bible have been used by painters to depict the female nude: Bathsheba in her Bath, Susanna and the Elders, Potiphar’s Wife and Joseph the Egyptian, and a few others. Most of these scenes are from the Old Testament. Mary Magdalene repenting in the wilderness or in a cave has been taken up by artists also to test their talent on the nude. The painters that painted Mary Magdalene in the nude were mostly French neo-Classic, academic artists, who sought the splendour of the female and an excuse for the depiction in a Bible theme. But they went back to a theme that was very ancient and from the fifteenth century already one can find pictures of the Magdalene nude, such as of the school of Bernardino Luini or at the end of that century to Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s pictures of the nude Magdalene. One of the Neo-Classicist painters of nudes who used thus Mary Magdalene as an excuse for a picture of the female nude was Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, and he was not a minor artist out for sensation.

Lefebvre was born in 1836. From 1852 on he studied in Paris with Léon Cogniet (1794-18880) and he attended the ‘Ecole des Beaux Arts’ of Paris. He won the ‘Prix de Rome’ in 1861, which allowed him to stay fro five years in Rome on a governmental stipend and study in the Villa Medici of Rome, where the French Academy of Rome was housed. Lefebvre painted scenes form classical antiquity then, abut also his first nudes. He returned to Paris in 1866 but met little success until he made a truly striking picture, called ‘Truth’, of a female nude standing high holding a round mirror that represented Justice. The woman stood in long, a long slim nude and splendidly shaped body, and she held the symbol as high as she could so that the viewer had to pass over her body lines, in a caress of the eyes, to discover the symbol. It was one of the most finely and also provocative erotic nudes ever made and the Parisians of the end of the century relished it. Lefebvre from then on painted almost no other pictures but of nude women, but also fine portraits. In the 1870’s, at the height of his fame, he became a professor at the ‘Académie Julien’ in Paris and many students received his teachings of very realistic and very academic depiction. His fame grew, so that he was promoted to the French ‘Légion d’Honneur’ in 1898 and he was appointed a member of the ‘Académie de France’. Jules-Joseph Lefebvre was now the very greatest painter of the female nude of the century and the one most accepted by the French establishment.

Lefebvre made a painting of Mary Magdalene in 1876, in the period when he was already famous. He showed Mary Magdalene glorifying her magnificent young body in the sun of Southern France, outside the cave in which she had preferred to live like a recluse. Lefebvre shows her reclining against hard stone and with her arms around her face. She only barely looks through her arms, head turned to the viewer, but the viewer has the impression that he or she is alone to admire the ivory body and that this gaze is yet not unknown to Mary Magdalene. The Magdalene repents in her cave in loneliness, but she has remained for Lefebvre the temptress of the New Testament. She repents, but has forced herself into isolation because the desire to seduce has not left her. Under arms and head Lefebvre painted Mary’s long, brown-red hair, which forms a crown and background of colour fro her white arms. Lefebvre let the light of the sun truly sculpt Mary’s body with delicate chiaroscuro and the light thus builds a Greek statue of the greatest elegance. The woman has perfect features. She is slim and ling and yet full enough for every viewer to want to caress her with his or her eyes. She crosses her legs, and bends her left leg also in full view of the eyes of the onlooker. Lefebvre always drew and painted his models in all realism, but he sought also original poises that could surprise, even if always only of the female nude. His paintings thus presented a lyrical ode to female beauty in its utterly unblemished, most perfect form. The nude Mary Magdalene of Jules-Joseph Lefebvre is not a real woman anymore. She is an ideal view of the mind created by an almost divine light, to which the nude Mary presents her body eagerly.

Jules-Joseph Lefebvre kept the colours around Mary Magdalene delicate and soft. He positioned his nude along the left diagonal and as the eyes of the viewer pass along the long legs to her upheaved small breasts and then to her eyes, the viewer is taken in by an elevating movement that the painter of spiritual, religious pictures would have been very jealous of, as that painter would have sought to depict the elevation of the mind. By such compositions Lefebvre could assign to his nudes a dignity so that they could be easily accepted, even if very erotic depictions, as subliminal images and thus be openly admired in the French Salons. Lefebvre painted the white body of Mary Magdalene against the dark grey, hard, cold and massive stones to evoke more feelings of coldness in the viewer, and thus of pity for the woman. Instead of showing a luxurious landscape of the sun-burnt Provence, he painted yet only a hint of the hills and of a lake or river in pastel, soft and rather cold hues. Thus the body of the woman contrast with her warmth against the hard environment. Lefebvre thus banned emotions from his picture. His picture remains cold and without empathy and this contrast with the Magdalene’s calculated charm brings a tension that the viewer cannot avoid, and which should heighten the effect of interest in the painting. He could paint green nature under Mary Magdalene’s feet, as if a miracle had made grow lush, green grass where she moved. This area of colour also contrasts with the rest of the picture, only to enhance still the extraordinary whiteness of Mary. Such a delicate whiteness can only be divine, tells Lefebvre, and Mary Magdalene has regained her purity. In the grass grow only white flowers, which are of the colour of innocence and purity, and no otherwise coloured plants. The flowers grow in the wild, low, and they seem to curve over Mary Magdalene and also to caress her, as if they were part of her. The Magdalene repented for her sins. The flowers of purity tell her that she is forgiven now, and will be received in heaven.

Jules-Joseph Lefebvre used Mary Magdalene’s image of the repentant female sinner as an alibi for one more painting of the female nude. Other French Classicist, academic painters would follow his example, such as Emmanuel Benner. The tile is unnecessary however. Lefebvre made a splendid picture of a nude and further references are superfluous. Lefebvre was probably the painter who made the most and best Classicist nudes, together with the great master Ingres.

The Magdalene with the smoking Flame

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652). Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles. Ca. 1636-1638.

The ‘Magdalene with the Smoking Flame’ is a stunning picture of Georges de La Tour, a French painter of the first half of the seventeenth century. De La Tour was born in 1593 in the town of Vic-sur-Seille, in the Lorraine region, near Nancy, in what is today North-eastern France. In the beginning of the seventeenth century the Lorraine was a duchy squeezed between the expanding Kingdom of France and the vast but still feudal Holy Roman German Empire. Lorraine was the feeble remnant of one of the three powerful lands into which Charlemagne had divided his empire in the ninth century among his sons and successors. The Lorraine was doomed to disappear as an independent duchy, but in the beginning of the seventeenth century people lived at peace there.

Georges de La Tour was the son of a baker, Jean de La Tour, and his wife, Sybille Molian. He was the second child in a family of seven children. Little is known about his life before 1620. He may have studied at Nancy, maybe even at Paris. He may have travelled to the Northern Netherlands and to Rome, but all this could be pure speculation. We do not know which painters he met, which education he received, who his teachers in the art of painting were, and we do not actually know which painters may have influenced his vision. He must have been a young man of substance however, quite recognised in his early twenties for his talents in business and in painting, for he could marry in 1617 a young lady of noble descent, Diane Le Nerf, whose family lived in another Lorraine town, in Lunéville. Diane le Nerf was the daughter of Jean le Nerf, a treasurer of the Duke of Loraine, so de La Tour had added access to the administrators and nobles of the Duchy, but he may have met his future wife, probably, due to his access to the court. He must have been known as a very promising painter already at that young age. In 1620 Georges de La Tour moved to Lunéville with his family and he started a fine career there, a double career even, as a trader and as a painter. A few years later he would take in students in his workshop. He sold paintings to the Duke of Lorraine in this period, a sign of his status in the region.

The Lorraine region had been relatively peaceful in the first quarter of the seventeenth century but at the beginning of the 1630’s the Catholic Duke of Lorraine, Charles IV, drew his duchy into the Thirty-year War. This was a particularly savage war between Catholic and Protestant factions in Germany. The war was mainly fought on German territory. Also the Swedish and Protestant King Gustav Adolph played a major role in that war with his excellent army for a couple of years. In 1631 the Catholic, mercenary armies of the German Emperor laid siege to, captured and destroyed the town of Magdeburg. More than twenty thousand citizens of Magdeburg were killed in the pillage of the town. The war moved to the West. In the autumn of 1638, also Lunéville was burnt and sacked by the French governor Pédamont. De La Tour’s workshop was destroyed. Georges de La Tour must have seen the events coming, for he had sought refuge first at Nancy, then at Paris. He had fled from Lunéville before the armies destroyed it.

It seems that Georges de La Tour had as much success in Paris as he had had in Lunéville, despite the fact that the French capital seethed with ambitious and very good painters. He obtained even the title of ‘Painter of the King’, which included lodgings in the Louvre Palace. He may have met Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII. He travelled to and fro between Nancy, where in all probability his family had remained, and Paris.

Georges de La Tour lived in Lunéville and Nancy because that was where his region was, his family, and his business. He had a large family; he would have ten children with Diane le Nerf. He did not need to live off his art. He did not have to live in a city of great wealth to find the necessary commissioners to sell his paintings to because he had other means of subsistence. This has always been a puzzle for scholars because painters live where the money is, and the money was in Paris. How could a great painter like de La tour have lived for so long in the Lorraine, when fame was to be had only in Paris. That mystery has added to his fame. But de La Tour was not the lonely genius of a forgotten land, the man who worked in all intimacy of a small town far from where the true action was. He was not cut off from the artistic currents of his age for he had many contacts as a merchant and gentleman. We know from scarce documents that he had an estate, owned lands, held cows, and dealt in grains. He knew what was going on in Paris and in the world. He may have travelled occasionally to the capital for his business. But he only went to live in Paris when life became too dangerous in Lunéville.

Georges de La Tour eventually returned to Lunéville, in the beginning of the 1940’s, to a Lorraine that was now French territory. He continued to receive commissions for paintings from the Henri de La Ferté-Senneterre, the French governor of the Lorraine in Nancy. He left the Parisian court where the money was on which he would be able to live off his art because he did not really need that kind of money, and his family preferred Lunéville. Still, he was first and foremost known as a painter in the Lorraine. De La Tour continued to work in Lunéville until his death in 1652. He died from an epidemic illness that slew many people in Lunéville, including his wife and his servant.

The ‘Magdalene with the smoking Flame’ is a nocturnal picture. Mary Magdalene sits before a lamp light and that lamp is the only source of light in a scene that is much hulled in darkness beyond a short distance from the flame. We are of course puzzled by the style of Georges de La Tour in such scenes, when painting in Paris was of grand religious or mythological themes that certainly better represented the growing splendour and importance of what was Europe’s wealthiest and best organised royal court. How and why did Georges de La Tour start to depict such night scenes, even before his arrival time in Paris from about 1635 on? Various hypotheses have been proposed.

De La Tour may have travelled to the Netherlands, maybe for business with the Low Countries, and seen there pictures made by the first Dutch Caravaggist (who had been to Rome and seen some of Caravaggio’s pictures) Hendrick Terbrugghen. He may even have seen nocturnal pictures made by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst, who was approximately of the same age as Georges de La Tour, but who had painted nocturnal scenes already in the 1620’s. He may have seen the nocturnals of the Genovese artist Luca Cambiaso, who painted such scenes in the period of 1570 to 1575. He may have been in Rome and seen Caravaggio’s work there, or the work of Caravaggio’s first followers. We very much doubt however that de La Tour studied these painters.

De La Tour’s style is very different from Caravaggio’s work and de La Tour’s very intimate work is very far from the powerful images that Caravaggio produced. Had De La Tour seen paintings by Caravaggio, he would have been otherwise influenced to very different scenes from the work we know of him. De La Tour worked still very much in the traditional modes of representation, not with the brutish power of the belly-gripping images of Caravaggio. He produced paintings in which we see figures only, no landscapes. De La Tour was only interested in people, much like Caravaggio, and also much like Terbrugghen and Van Honthorst. His mode of representation is very different from the art brought by all these painters however, though in subjects he was not far from Terbrugghen and van Honthorst. De La Tour was the painter by excellence of silence, of quiet and reserved images. He painted first pictures in bright and pure colours, in clear lines, with light backgrounds. He used chiaroscuro only to show the volumes of his figures, and not more than was necessary for the realism of the pictures. But then, around 1635, de la Tour discovered night scenes. How did he come to these?

It does not take much for an artist to adopt an idea. De La Tour may well never have been to the Netherlands and never to Rome. He may have seen, even briefly, just the time to pass by a picture in a corridor, maybe even in the Louvre or in one of the many other palaces and hotels of Paris, a Dutch painting or an Italian painting of a scene lit by a candle. After all, fifty years or so before de La Tour was in Paris, Jacopo da Ponte called Bassano and Francesco Bassano already painted nocturnals,and even Antonio Allegri called il Correggio had painted such scenes a hundred years earlier! Luca Cambiaso of Genoa had made such pictures about fifty years earlier. Correggio had even painted nocturnals, for instance with Judith and her servant, merely lit by the flame of a long torch. De La Tour might have pondered over the scene for just a moment. He may have wondered at the technical difficulty of rendering the shadows. Chiaroscuro was as old a technique as the art of painting itself of course. It was used often, since antiquity, to render the volumes of the human body as shown by the contours on robes and cloaks. The details of chiaroscuro on cloth were always a precise subject of admiration for spectators. But the rendering of shadows in a night scene was a daunting task. It was also a surprising task, for the art of painting was the art of working with colour. In nocturnal pictures one made colour disappear in darkness. The art of painting was also the art of lines and of composition however, and lines were emphasised in the dark. De La Tour knew darkness well.

De La Tour was a wealthy gentleman of the Lorraine. We do not know in how many items he traded, whether he merely exploited his estate, but he did trade in cereals. It was hard to make much money in the Lorraine region and de La Tour’s times were hard; resources were few. One could not be too honest, not too scrupulous. It has been suggested that de La Tour manipulated the price of grain in his town. One had to have cunning, be ambitious and be hard driving in one’s business. De La Tour had grown rather wealthy not only from his profession as a painter, but also from his business. He was an ambitious man, a man that had to put himself and his actions constantly into question. He had knowledge of the world more than other men and he had confidence in his abilities. As a painter, he must have been challenged by the nocturnal scenes, understood the tests of such paintings and the possibilities they offered to prove his superiority. Moreover, as a business man, a gentleman-trader, he knew the importance of being the first in specific trades, to be the only importer and the only trader for goods in a town. When you had found a good that nobody traded in and that could appeal to buyers, you could ask high prices. Every businessman knew that. Georges de La Tour had found in nocturnal paintings something no other French painter did. He had found his niche.

Nocturnal scenes are extremely difficult to paint. One needs to paint the play of light and shadows right, and know how to show the hues as they appear not in daylight but in semi-darkness. Hues of colour are not the same in daylight and at evenings. It is fairly easy to imagine the effects of light and shadows on objects, but de La Tour had to depict the play of light on surfaces of different textures. Light is reflected from an object of a dark colour - such as a wooden box - very differently than from a young face, a nude shoulder, a bare knee, very differently from a heavy velvet robe than from a flimsy silk shirt. Light from a candle or from a small oil lamp is very special light. It is very bright close to the wick, and then fades rapidly. Such light reduces volumes to surfaces more than diffuse light from a broad source does. A candle in the night is a single point source of light. The lines of light go in straight lines out of the point of light so that it might be not too difficult to determine the intersection of those lines with square objects. It was a lot trickier however to determine the shadow lines on round surfaces such as of the human body. It was difficult then to draw the borders between light and shadow. There was on such contours not a clear delineation of shadows. Light faded out over round volumes. Of course, because a candle is a point source it throws shadows that were clearer than those of diffuse light, and it tends to emphasize surfaces rather than volumes, but viewers would be more attentive at scenes of candlelight to check whether the shadows were right. De La Tour had better have his shadows exact, as in natural scenes. Yet, there were several advantages to such light too for a master painter like Georges de La Tour. The effect of a point source is more dramatic and hence astonishes, appeals to the attention of the viewer. That was an interesting effect, for spectators would remain longer before such a painting, and interest meant money and fame.

It was an arduous task for Georges de La Tour, and for any painter of nocturnals, to determine just how the contours ran of the brilliant, lighted and less lighted surfaces. He had to seek out the gradations in the transitions from very bright, directly lit spots, to the darker areas on volumes. The chiaroscuro was particularly difficult on round forms and textures of cloth and flesh had to be rendered still in a credible way for the viewer. De La Tour could not just paint scenes in black and white. The surfaces are coloured, and light is not always just reflected in pure white. Brightly lit surfaces take on pure white or lighter hues of the colour of the surface. How did the hues change from white to the original colour of the area, then to darker hues, as could be seen in the shadowy parts? The shadows are coloured too. But which hue had to be used? What did the shadows of objects do on a coloured background? Do the darker surfaces retain their colour, but in sombre hues, or do they turn black or brown? Many colours disappear in dark light, to leave only brown and deep-orange hues dominant. How could one make a picture that did not look dull only in these hues? It was a notoriously hard task to present candle-lit scenes in an exact way. How could De La Tour accomplish such a task?

It has been suggested that Georges de La Tour used artificial source of light to simulate his scenes and to draw the lines of shadows on the canvas. He would have placed his canvas on a low table, used a harsh light to project shadows, and copied the lines. That seems hardly possible however, for the light in the canvas had to come from within the canvas, from a source inside the picture, since that is where the candle is positioned, and not from a source outside. Georges de La Tour had to bring an image that was a true imitation of nature. He had to render an as exact view as possible. That was a main element of the skills he had to master. It was by far not the only talent he had to possess, for he had to master also composition, the art of design of lines and forms in his picture, and he had to be intelligent enough to guide the view of the spectator over the picture and present a view that was interesting for his commissioners. But he could not be credible as a painter if he could not imitate the reality of the shadows to near perfection. He had to possess a formidable talent of observation and the abilities to retain all the details of a natural scene, and then be able to remember all the details in his mind and bring the details over to the canvas. Observation was key also for the colours, because in candlelight a blue shirt does not stay blue but becomes deeper blue, to dark grey. Red turns rapidly to black. Green disappears too. One could not follow one’s mind but had to remember the effect of the scarce light on the colours.

Georges de La Tour therefore could only have one of two things.

De La Tour might have brought the figures and objects of his scene together in a real setting. He may have used a model, a young woman representing the Magdalene, maybe a servant, maybe his wife, in a dark room, and lit her by a candle or an oil lamp. He may have taken in the scene and noted in his mind all the details of the glory of light. He must have led his eyes get used to the paucity of light, have noticed the magic of how eyes took in more and more details when they adapted to less light. He might also have noticed how different the effects were from a feeble point source as compared to from a wide source, such as sunlight coming through a window. Then he might have started on his painting, using his memory alone. The advantage of such a process was that he needed not many artefacts, just a room in the darkness, and a girl. He could repeat the scene easily, even in a small room in Paris. He could reproduce the setting at will, whenever he had doubts about how the shadows fell or which hues they took. This is the most probable process Georges de La Tour might have used to paint his nocturnes, in which only few personages are figured in. It is interesting to note how he started with relatively frugal pictures such as the ‘Magdalene at the smoking Flame’ to evolve to pictures with more than one point source of light and pictures with ever more personages.

Georges de La Tour may however also have done nothing of the sort and painted purely from memory, making mind-images of how the shadows could form. There was no electric light in the seventeenth century. De La Tour was not a poor man in Lunéville. He must have been occupied with his business, with the management of his estate, and with his large family, for many hours during the day. He may have worked late, at times of falling light, but he had the money to buy candles and oil lamps. He would have used candles often, especially in winter, to illuminate the canvases he worked on. How many times had he painted at times of scarce light, alone in his room, looking intently at a feebly lit painting? He must have known darkness a lot better than we do. He must have seen the effects of little light thousands of times, before he painted his first picture of a night scene. With a memory tuned to details, tuned to the attention of his art, he must have known the effects of candlelight by heart. He may well have imagined his figures and objects in his mind, from what he knew so well, and then painted by instinct and by memory.

Georges de La Tour may have used a combination of the two described processes, setting up a model, drawing contours of light and shadow, memorising the hues of the surfaces with a mind tuned to volumes, lines, forms and colours. Then he would have started to paint. He had an advantage on any viewer: no spectator could imagine a scene as real and exact as an artist like de La Tour. He could be sure of that. Some errors against reality might go unnoticed. And de La Tour could set up his models over and over again, to come as close to reality as necessary. He would not need this process more than a couple of times. To people that study his paintings in intricate detail, his skills in rendering reality is truly astonishing, for there is hardly an error to discover. Computer simulations have been made to reproduce the effects of light, and de La Tour has been proven to be exact.

In most of de La Tour’s nocturnal paintings there is only one source of light. The advance of his art would have been to use more than one point source, to depict the effects of the crossing of the cones of light, and to figure in several figures. The summit of his art would have been to bring scenes that were powerful in emotions. Georges de La Tour reached that summit of art too, but it would take time. In the ‘Magdalene of the Night Light’ in the Louvre of Paris’, dating from about 1635, there is a single source of light, a glass lamp like in the ‘Magdalene with the smoking Flame’. In the Magdalene of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, made equally around 1635, the flame is single and hidden by a skull, which meant another challenge. In the ‘Repentant Magdalene’ of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, made in the period of 1638 to 1643, there is a double light source because the candle flame stands before a mirror. Both sources project light and bring shadows. The ‘Magdalene of the smoking Flame’ must have been made a long time before this last picture. In his ‘Saint Sebastian helped by Irene’ there are many figures and in this painting Georges de la Tour may have had to handle the volumes as if they had more angular forms, to make his task of imagining the shadows easier, or he reached a degree of representation that was abstract and truly astonishing for a painter of his age. ‘Job jeered by his Wife’ was his last nocturnal painting, even probably his last work overall, and his most touching picture. In this painting at last, de La Tour was not the caring gentleman anymore, but the truly feeling artist. The ‘Magdalene with the smoking Flame’ is one of the first pictures in an ascending line of art.

There is only one source of point light in the ‘Magdalene with the smoking Flame’: the light of a burning wick fuelled by the transparent wax or oil in a glass. The lamp is simple, the device of a poor house. The light illuminates Mary Magdalene. She sits on a chair but that object is completely hidden in darkness and indeed, the detail is totally un-essential for the picture. The structure of the painting is simple and very strong. The brighter areas of the Magdalene are all situated along the right diagonal of the frame, so that the picture is very Baroque, even though the oblique diagonal is not used as an element of movement in de La Tour’s picture, for the figure of the Magdalene is at rest, very static, without gestures, and does not directly seek to involve the viewer. The Magdalene sits, turned into her own thoughts, and she does not look at the viewer. She does not interrogate the viewer, conveys no feeling to the viewer, she does not look outside the painting. This aspect of course strengthens the intimate character of the scene. The Magdalene therefore has her own life that the viewer watches, becomes a voyeur to, but takes no part in. The viewer remains a viewer, is no actor. The viewer indeed looks at a picture. The Magdalene’s intimacy is not disturbed, for she does not notice the viewer. The left triangle of the frame, the space to the left of the right diagonal, is other wise hulled in darkness but since the right triangle is equally in darkness - though less so -, the structure is quite balanced around the bright diagonal. A table starts in the middle of the right triangle and objects are placed on the thick, brown table top. We see the glass with the long yellow flame, books, a heavy wooden crucifix, a rope that hangs low in two lines that go down below to two beams and are attached there. The light of the flame illuminates brightly the forms along the right diagonal, the Magdalene. She holds a skull with her right hand, in her lap. The flame lightens her white flesh in the most dramatic way. De La Tour showed Mary Magdalene with bare shoulders and bare left arm. The light plays in harsh shadows on her. Her bare flesh indicates maybe that she had been a sinner before and certainly adds a touch of daring and sensuality that viewers would expect in a picture of the Magdalene. The light fades on the skull and on her knees. Georges de La Tour applied all hues of brown, orange, ochre and many shades of white in a fine harmony of warm colours. He used no green, red or blue, no pure hues anywhere, which might have disturbed this harmony. One should admire the variety of hues and shades, the skill in rendering the transitions from light to dark, the chiaroscuro on cloth, the means of indicating the differences in texture of for instance the white shirt and the thick orange robe of Mary Magdalene.

The Magdalene sits and supports her head with her arm and her hand. She ponders over her past and future life. She holds a skull in her other hand and gently caresses the round form in her lap. Why does she not hold there a baby child, like the Virgin Mary? The skull is the symbol of her sin. She holds death in her lap. Why does she not hold life, like the Virgin Mary? Why has God brought her to sin and why has he brought Mary to life? Just how much of her life has been her own choice, how much God’s choice? Has God ordained her to be the sinner in Jesus’ life, because a woman sinner was necessary for the message, just as he ordained Mary to engender his life?

Death is everywhere around the Magdalene. Death is in the skull and in the flame that will soon peter out, for its smoke becomes blacker, longer and thicker. The smoke of the flame is life that disappears into nothing. Will the Magdalene’s life then stop? Will she be joined with the one person she truly loved, Jesus? Jesus however did not even want to touch her after his Resurrection. ‘Noli me tangere’, he said, do not touch me. Was that a sign of love or a sign of the distance between humans and God, the distance between depravity and purity? Will she be condemned to hell in the hereafter? Why did Jesus deliver a message of forgiveness when forgiveness cannot be hers now? If it was a sign of distance, then the Magdalene will die alone and disappear in the void like black smoke in the air. Her smoke will also be black, not white.

Jesus said no one would die for himself or herself alone, but the Magdalene will surely die alone. She is in solitude here, sitting in the dark. No one will accompany her. No one will stand by her on her journey into the darkness; no one will hold her hand when the flame goes out. She will die for herself alone. That will be the most terrible aspect of her death: the loneliness in the darkness of the night. But it was also the choice she made when she went to live in solitude. She renounced the world. She renounced discourse with other people. She renounced the laughter of children and the heath of the sun on her face, for she lived in the darkness of a cave.

The Magdalene does not fear death. She doubts she will suffer much in death. She does not fear death, but she fears suffering at the moment of death. And she will be alone. Is that not so of every human in the moment of death? No, Jesus said no one dies for himself or herself alone. He once praised her, at her and Martha’s house, for hanging to his lips, hearing him out, listening eagerly to his words and taking in his words into her heart. She has read the Book in remembrance of those times and she has done penitence. So, maybe she will not die alone and still see Jesus in the after-life.

The subject of the painting is the repentance of the Magdalene. She has been a sinner and reflects on her past, wicked life. She was the woman taken in adultery, the vain sister of Martha, the sister of Lazarus, the woman of sin that wept while she anointed Jesus’ feet at the house of Simon. All these women of the Bible may have been different personages, but this Mary is all of them together. Therefore she turns her head away in shame, away from the passing viewer. This Mary is the Magdalene that Jesus refused to be touched by after his Resurrection, the woman to which he had to say ‘Noli me Tangere’. This Mary reflects on the shortness of life and on the vanity of humans.

The flame gives off black smoke, as if it will soon die out, be extinguished, like the end of life. The book may represent the Bible with the words of God, but it may also indicate the vanity of knowledge. The wooden cross is the symbol of the Magdalene’s repentance and love for Jesus. Around and over the cross hang the ropes that can be used to seek physical penitence. These may even be the ropes of a hanging or of torture. Such a rope holds also the robe of Mary, a sign of the penitence emphasised by the ropes on the table. The rope around the Magdalene suggests poverty. The ropes of the table end on heavy wooden beams, which she may have drawn a while ago, another sign of her penitence. The skull is the ultimate symbol of vanity, the sign of life that passes by quickly. The same symbol is the flame. These objects are all placed near each other, in one connected triangle o space. They are not dispersed but keep the attention of the viewer confined to a limited area, to the area of light. The Magdalene looks at these objects. She is melancholy impersonalised. She holds her head in her hand and caresses the skull in her lap. Yet, no other emotions but this interior gloom radiate from the picture.

The Magdalene is an eminently Catholic theme. Protestant painters have rarely taken it up in their religious scenes. The Magdalene was of course a symbol of sin, and hence not very acceptable for reformed, austere painters and commissioners. There was also always an element of sensuality in the Magdalene, a element from which de La Tour did not shy away from. In the ‘Magdalene of the smoking Flame’ he drew the Magdalene’s shirt low over her shoulder, bared her knees, to indicate very clearly who she was and what she was. Still, he treated the subject with much delicacy. He was indeed the painter of the silence of the night.

Georges de La Tour may have applied structure elements of the Baroque, such as his use of the diagonal and the dominance of the tenebrism, but his painting is absolutely not Baroque in this treatment, in this confinement of emotions to the very private sphere. The expression of the scene is not Baroque. It could be rather Classicist, as the court of Paris might have better appreciated, yet that court welcomed splendour and not this reserved intimacy. In representation also, de La Tour was original. Georges de La Tour showed his own, very individual vision.

Why was de La Tour so original, so different from the many excellent painters that worked at and around the court of Paris? Could he not have been more successful imitating their style and using their themes?

Georges de La Tour was an ambitious man. We have documents that mention he refused to pay certain taxes and that state he had to compensate for having beaten a man on his land. He had to be hard if he wanted to succeed in business, and we know he was quite wealthy in Lunéville. He must have been an ambitious man also in his art of painting. He was a hard-working man, managing his estate and be a painter. He had a large family. Nocturnals were a tough challenge. He had painted many pictures in fine colours and he could learn nothing anymore from these. Why would he have painted if it was not to take up a challenge? Nocturnals were a new style that summoned him, defied his skills and his intellect. His skills were ample for scenes in normal light and de La Tour may have sought to surpass himself in nocturnals.

Georges de La Tour had come to Paris. There were very many fine painters in the capital of France in those times, attracted by a wealthy court. Simon Vouet, Nicolas Régnier, Valentin de Boullogne, Claude Vignon, Gérard Douffet, François Perrier, Jean Lemaire, Philippe de Champaigne, Jacques Blanchard, the Le Nain family painters, Jacques Stella, Laurent de La Hyre, Michel Corneille, Jacques Patel Père, and other, younger artists, would have vied for commissioners. Competition was tough in Paris. This was the golden era for the economy of France and for the royal court, but it was also a golden era for the painters that flocked to Paris and increased competition. La Tour had to compete with many established painters and no one awaited a provincial artist, however fine, who came from far, without good connections nurtured over many years, and who arrived in the town as a refugee. Of course, his fame had reached Paris even during the time he worked in Lunéville. A document states that the King paid him for travelling to Paris from Nancy. The other painters knew much better the Parisian commissioners for churches and hotels, for abbeys and the court. De La Tour came to Paris with a provincial fame only, so he had to find a way to distinguish himself among the other artists. His ambitions did not allow him to be one among the flock. He was special. What could be easier than to distinguish himself by proposing a subject, a style of representation that was entirely different from anything that the other Parisian painters showed? The nocturnals were a niche, and de La Tour knew the value of a niche in business.

With nocturnals, de La Tour could astonish Paris and his colleagues. He was therefore not a competitor to the other artists and might therefore also appeal to their benevolence. He was different. He appealed to commissioners with other views. The King was pleased with his pictures. We know the King placed one of his paintings in his bedroom, and displaced for that another painting. The Cardinal Richelieu owned paintings by de La Tour. The ‘Magdalene at the smoking Flame’ was one of the first of his nocturnals. We can follow how he perfected his style, to astonish ever more his contemporaries and master the challenge of more complex rendering of light and shadow.

The ‘Magdalene at the smoking Flame’ is a great painting. It is however a painting of which I would hesitate to count it among the very greatest of the century. The ‘Magdalene with the smoking Flame’ is, despite its magnificence and technical feat, a painting that does not represent the power of feelings I would expect from a very grand picture. It is an intimate picture, a mild picture of interior serene emotions, and hence to be admired for the way in which it shows this modesty, but it reflects few ardent feelings onto the viewer. De La Tour was a rather wealthy man, a landowner, relatively rich in Paris, truly rich in Lunéville. He was nicely married to a noble woman and the family of his wife’s father was connected to the Dukes. He was a successful gentleman. He would not be ennobled, but his son, Etienne, also a painter, was ennobled after Georges de La Tour’s death. Georges left Lunéville before his family suffered from the violence of the Thirty-Year war. He had the means to come to Paris and leave his business of the Lorraine region. He returned only to Lunéville when the disturbances had subsided, when his house had been rebuilt in Lunéville and when the Lorraine region was firmly and securely in the protection of the French King and of Cardinal Richelieu. He had not suffered much. There is no suffering in his paintings of that time and for a truly great painting there has to be not only talent and intelligence but also – at least, to my taste - the emotions of suffering in the picture.

Let us compare Georges de La Tour with the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi, called the Caravaggio. Caravaggio may have killed a man. He was pursued by the guards of the Pope. Caravaggio was a man who had suffered from his violent character and from his deeds. How different was Caravaggio from de La Tour! Georges de La Tour had the character of a gentleman and of a decent housefather. He was not a wild adventurer. He could not be. The ‘Magdalene with the smoking Flame’ is a picture of a dining room, a picture composed with a cool head and with little passion. The objects placed before the Magdalene seems artificially gathered, gathered with a purpose that serves the picture. We are used now to see such assemblies of objects, since we have seen so many Dutch vanitas still life painters show these objects and we do not forget that this Dutch still life art epitomised a country in which lived the finest and also most ruthless, well-organised merchants of Europe, a country that had created the first worldly art directed to their immediate reality instead of to the transcendence of God in religious motives. Georges de La Tour was a Northerner, not a Roman, and not even a Frenchman from the South or from Paris. De La Tour resembled in character the leading men of the Dutch Republic. He was not a hot-charactered Mediterranean. He was the well-to-do, respected citizen of a prosperous town in a not so rich region. He must have loved his family dearly. He lived a quiet life. He had a sense of the details of the night. His paintings show he appreciated intimacy, quietness, silence, introspection and modesty. In that, he was of the same character of that greatest of Northern painters, who would come later in the same century, Johannes Vermeer of Delft.

Georges de La Tour coolly diversified his images in Paris, so that the paintings could bring him in more money, more success, more recognition, fame and admiration. He was not a man who had suffered. He came from an industrious region of France, the Lorraine, where it was not easy to live but where fortunes could be made only through hard and long work. De La Tour’s art was not as exuberant or as powerful as the art of the other greatest masters of his times.

A little more to the north, in Antwerp, Pieter Paul Rubens delivered in the metropolis of Antwerp grand, exuberant pictures. Rubens was wealthy, and wealth came easy in the largest port of Europe, a port that traded for large amounts of gold with the entire world. The greatest fortunes gathered at Antwerp. Rubens was a diplomat for his town and kings and queens ordered paintings from his workshop. His pictures were of religious and mythological scenes and he painted portraits in the finest, bright colours. Rubens burst of energy and happiness. He impersonalised the boastfulness of Brabant.

To the South, in Milan, Rome and Naples and in Malta, worked the genius Caravaggio. Caravaggio had suffered much, lived among thieves, murderers and prostitutes, as well as among rich cardinals and knights. He had a wild and violent character. He had been born a genius and his art did not need to evolve. He was the painter that for all periods of the art of painting delivered the most powerful, terrible views, views of death and assassination that gripped the viewers with admiration and abhorrence.

Georges de La Tour had a place between Rubens and Caravaggio. It was a place of hard work in two professions, in a world in which he had to calculate and scrape small earnings together to ensure his ample family lived well. He was a good housefather. He defended his possessions. His character shows in his paintings. He was an intelligent artist who used his considerable skills, skills nearly as great as those of Rubens and Caravaggio. Rubens made paintings to please and to overwhelm with delight. In a few paintings Rubens also showed that he could be serious and imposing and quiet. Caravaggio painted from his guts but with enough knowledge of the style elements of the art of painting to make perfectly composed pictures. Caravaggio was wild, but he knew very well that great paintings needed strong structure. He succeeded in making his pictures extremely powerful, as powerful as his first idea, yet he had enough intelligence to keep his feelings in check once he started to work. Georges de La Tour was an artist in between, but no less an artist.

Georges de La Tour brought quiet, intimate paintings of a modest studio. He was interested in people lost in thoughts, at rest, in contemplation, pondering over the woes of the world. In his nocturnals he painted people that were turned into themselves, not - like Rubens did - people that opened to the world, and not –like Caravaggio did – people that suffered violently. De La Tour thought he had to paint night scenes to be able to distinguish himself among the French painters that preferred Rubens’ style to Caravaggio’s. Indeed, Rubens brought many and mighty scenes lauding Maria de Medicis to Paris. De La tour was not like that. Because of this need to differentiate, we have some of the strangest but finest pictures of the seventeenth century of this painter, and Georges de La Tour is still considered an artist that was very different from any other artist that worked in that century.

Next to the Classicist pictures made by the painters of the great seventeenth century of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, of the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, we have from de La Tour pictures that are art at its purest and most intimate. To taste and understand this art, you have to travel through France. You will have to taste the outrageous Paris as well as the quiet province towns such as Nancy. In provincial France, you will find many people who live in apartments that look drab on the outside but that are filled inside with pieces of art. Here live the people that admire painter like Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin and Georges de La Tour, the French painters of meditation and silence.

Many of Caravaggio’s paintings are about death. Yet, they are about the terrible things that people can do to each other. Caravaggio’s paintings are about the violence at the moment of death, about the brutality of that act when men forget they are humans and become thoughtless butchers. Caravaggio’s paintings are about revolt against this abasement of humanity and they are about the horror of vile murder. Caravaggio taught his viewers to loathe murder. He showed what assassination of a human is really like.

Georges de La Tour also reflected on death in his many paintings on the theme of Mary Magdalene, and maybe even in all his night scenes. He did not show the horror of the moment of death however. If the viewer takes some time at his pictures, he or she will reflect about how people die, about loneliness and about the darkness that may come after life. The visions of Caravaggio and of de La Tour are thus complementary. Caravaggio was the painter of the horror of the moment. De La Tour was the painter of the silence of the night and of solitude, when reflection and dark fear of the unknown conquers the mind. He was no lesser artist.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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