In Baroque art, Georges de La Tour is considered as a central figure. He led the development of French Baroque style as an artistic movement in the country together with Claude Lorrain and Simon Vouet. Georges was particularly responsible for introducing Baroque into France by traveling to and fro Italy and then by completing several commissions for Louis XIII, Duke of Lorraine and the ever-prominent Cardinal Richelieu.
At some point in his career, he had also worked for King Louis XIV. His works have traces of Caravaggism with his use to tenebrism and naturalism that are the primary characteristics of the said painting style. It is believed that de la Tour might have adopted this style from his visits to Italy or from the works of Gerrit Honthorst, a well-known follower of Caravaggio. In fact, Honthorst was the central figure of Utrecht caravaggisti.
As he moved on with his career, his did some changes in his style one of which was when he began applying French classicism into his works. This could be attributed to his desire to appeal to the taste of his proud French patrons plus the increasing popularity of his contemporaries such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Gellee (Lorrain).
However, de la Tour’s were only regarded as fit to the works of old masters after its re-discovery in 1915. His surviving creations were discovered by Hermann Voss, and this helped him become more publicized in European Baroque art.
Nevertheless, he is best remembered for his surviving works such as The Penitent St. Peter (1645), The Payment of Taxes (1643) and The Dream of St. Joseph, St. Irene with the Wounded St. Sebastian (1640) and The Magdalen of the Candle (1644). So, unlike Claude who focused on idealized landscape painting, de la Tour did some religious-themed commissions.
Georges de La Tour was born around 1593 in Vic-sur-Seille, a large town in the Duchy of Lorraine (modern-day northeastern France). He grew up to a family of artisanal class for his father, Jean de La Tour, was a baker. His family can be considered as lesser nobility but despite the presumed popularity of his clan, there is little document to support the events during his childhood and adolescent years.
It is said though that his apprenticeship in painting began in 1605 with Alphonse de Rambervilliers. This master was more of a writer than a painter; in fact, he had amateur skills in engraving. One factor that made him influential in the province was his association to the Bishop of Metz and architect Jacques Bellange.
Anywhere between 1610 and 1616, Georges de La Tour would have been traveling across the country to get to Rome, Italy. The base to this claim is the dates he produced some paintings within this decade, most of these paintings depict Caravaggio’s influence; low-life characters, tenebrous style and bold chiaroscuro.
On the contrary, art historians would argue that the influence of the Neapolitan artist only began spreading throughout the continent two decades after 1610 via the Caravaggesque style of Bartolomeo Manfredi, Dirck van Baburen and Gerrit van Honthorst. So, de La Tour should not have a strong motive to go to Italy around 1610, if Caravaggio’s art wasn’t ubiquitous in Europe at the time yet.
But while up there in Duchy of Lorraine, it is thought that La Tour made some drastic changes in his painting style. He was steadily departing from the influences of Caravaggesque style but he made sure that he would still maintain some elements of it. For example, in The Repentant Magdalen, it depicts austere and dramatic facial and gesture expressions from the character, and he successfully affected drama by using a candle-lit background to complete the painting. It is through this technique that La Tour would be able to evoke devotional experience, which is one of the goals of naturalism and Roman classicism.
Georges de La Tour married Diane Le Nerf in 1617, daughter of a wealthy silversmith. His marriage required him to establish his own workshop in Luneville, part of the Duchy of Lorraine. To this date and onward, he had accomplished accolades such as the “Painter to the King” title when he became the favorite court artist of King Louis XIII. He painted several religious arts for the said monarch and he also earned from important commissions from the Dukes of Lorraine from 1623 to 1624.
Aside from his royal commissions, he also paid much time working on some paintings for his affluent clients from the bourgeoisie class. But despite being a marketable painter in Luneville, he is recorded inactive around 1639 to ’42 because he may have traveled somewhere again. Art historian and biographer Anthony Blunt observed the influence of Gerrit van Honthorst in his paintings toward the 1640’s.
Within the said decade, de La Tour had been contracted by the Franciscan Order to revive the art in Lorraine. This commission prompted him to focus on doing secular-themed paintings, which he did over the course of his life. It is also thought that he completed some works for the French governor of Lorraine between 1644 and 1651. He was in fact hired to execute six paintings to pay homage to the great cities of the province.
Georges de La Tour’s can be summarized in two decades albeit short; from 1620’s to late 1640’s. He died prematurely on January 30, 1652 so his career was relatively cut off briefly. Two weeks after his burial, his wife followed suit and it is likely that their deaths were caused by the plague.
Fortunately, the couple bore a child, so their son Etienne La Tour fomented collaboration with his father to complete his unfinished paintings in 1654. However, being an affluent man that he was he grew cold to the arts and pursued business management-related works instead. And this obviously explains why Georges de La Tour’s works lost touch to the world but only to be rediscovered 250 years later.
As part of his composition, Georges de La Tour did leave his signature in most of his paintings although he failed to put dates on them so art historians have had a difficult time arranging his works chronologically. In fact, only three of his surviving works have bear a precise date and these are The Repentant St. Peter (1645), The Denial of St. Peter (1650) and The Payment of Taxes (1643).
While de La Tour was more inclined to painting bold and austere religious art, his paintings can be categorized between night time and day time scenes. This is suggestive of the fact that he had a great skill set in portraying austerity under the day-time light. His earliest works are known for their detailed, smooth and freer painting style while a clear light is casted upon the characters albeit the facial expressions seem to evoke coldness and distance. This representation can be observed in The Hurdy-Gurdy Player and The Penitent of St. Jerome.
Meanwhile, the night-time scenes depict artificial lighting. This is de La Tour’s way of eliminating as many hues in the painting as possible so he can freely and logically splash vibrant red shade as the artificial lighting to the art work. This technique also allowed him to make linear perspective simpler because the greater the volume of the plane is in the frame the work will look cubist, to put it simply.
The subject matter of de La Tour ranged from the themes prominent during the Caravaggesque period to those common that had been common in Northern genre painting. Few examples of his Caravaggesque works include The Prodigal Son, The Repentant Magdalene, The Fortune Teller and The Denial of St. Peter.
If one could observe de La Tour’s works, he or she would have described it as clean and simple. He was always keeping it down low to basics like he did not go as far as including undependable details, landscapes, descriptive interiors, towers and edifices in his works. He also made sure that his characters are less adorned as much as possible and yet he found success through this.
The unexpected intense spirituality in his rather simple creations is truly surprising. Art critics believe that his works perfectly represented the stoicism of the period plus the mysticism in the scenes of Lorraine province.