George de La Tour (1593-1652), today considered a figure of commanding importance in French 17th-century painting, is best known for his mystical night scenes.
Highly successful in his lifetime as a painter in Lorraine whose work was also known and admired at the court of Louis XIII, Georges de La Tour was virtually forgotten after his death. His work first returned to public attention in 1934 in an exhibition in Paris of the "Painters of Reality in France," when a group of paintings reasonably attributed to him seemed the strongest and most personal statement of interests similar to Caravaggio and his followers, yet so distinct as to be compared to such different artists as Nicolas Poussin and Jan Vermeer. Since then further discoveries have been made, more paintings have been added to the number believed to be surely by his hand, and his work continues to exert a wide appeal, but fundamental questions about his life as an artist remain unanswered and perhaps always will.
La Tour was born in Vic-sur-Seille, the small capital of the bishopric of Metz. He was married in 1618 in Lunéville, the summer capital of the duchy of Lorraine, and by 1620 he seems to have had an active studio there. Lunéville remained the center of his life; baptismal records establish the birth of nine children between 1618 and 1636, and other documents record the interest of successive patrons in his work. Two paintings were commissioned early in his career (1623/1624) by the reigning Duke of Lorraine; in 1633 he is mentioned as having the title of Painter to the King (Louis XIII); in the early 1640s the French governor of Lorraine ordered that several of La Tour's paintings be presented to him by the town of Nancy; and after 1644 La Tour is described as the official painter to the town of Lunéville. In 1648 La Tour was listed among the founding members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Documents of payment bear witness to his continued activity in Lorraine until his death early in 1652.
While these archival notices suggest the nature and extent of La Tour's work, there are significant gaps in the records, and it is not easy to correlate the chronology of his paintings with the factual evidence of his life. The signatures of some of the signed paintings are doubtful; different versions exist of paintings described only by title in documents; and some paintings may be copies of now-lost works. There are, in brief, many problems of connoisseurship which will continue to be debated.
The main questions about La Tour's life focus on the time before his marriage in 1618 and the years between 1639 and 1643, when there are no records of his presence in Lunéville. Did he travel to Italy as a young artist or journey to the Netherlands and encounter Italianate ideas in Utrecht? Was he in Paris in the late 1630s and early 1640s, and did he perhaps make a second journey from there to the Netherlands? In Lunéville was he close to the leaders of the current religious revival?
Whatever the answers to these questions, the primary documents will remain his own paintings. The artist's originality is apparent in his earliest signed painting, The Cheat (1625). The subject of a group of cardplayers, long popular in the Netherlands as well as with Caravaggio and his followers in Italy, is presented with a startling dignity and clarity, showing La Tour's ability to select, simplify, and generalize. The four figures are painted thinly but with absolute precision; handsome costumes and the accessories of the game accent the broad, simple forms presented in a strong, natural light.
With very few exceptions, all of La Tour's paintings after this early date are night scenes, largely dependent on the highly expressive use of a source of light within the painting. Sometimes the source—a candle, torch, or lantern—is partially or completely concealed by a hand, a figure, or an object; sometimes the light flares out brilliantly against the surrounding darkness. In every case light is central to the formal construction of the paintings.
Scholars differ radically in the dates they assign to individual works by La Tour, but they generally agree that he developed gradually and consistently from the naturalism of The Cheat through the greater breadth and concentration of paintings focusing on one or two figures seen at night, as in Job and His Wife and St. Joseph, to the absolute distillation of forms in the late paintings grouped about the Denial of St. Peter (1651) and St. Sebastian Mourned by St. Irene.
None of La Tour's paintings involves more than a few figures; they are shown in simple, stable groupings arranged close to the picture plane in a space defined by light. The range of colors is limited to a few tones: warm tans, copper, and brick-red hues contrast with small passages of white or light yellow against dark grounds. Working with a few formal elements, La Tour achieved results that are suggestive through their very economy. His figures are quiet but not rigid; an atmosphere of silence and permanence emanates from his work. All his paintings, whatever the subject, seem profoundly religious ones, interpreted by a probing, serious, and sensitive mind.
S. M. M. Furness, Georges de La Tour of Lorraine, 1593-1652 (1949), is an enthusiastic if somewhat personal study of the artist that includes the most important documentation. La Tour's place in French art of the 17th century can best be studied in Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1954; 2d ed. 1970).