In my next two blogs I am looking at the life of the seventeenth century French artist, Georges de la Tour and featuring some of his works of art. In this first blog I want to feature some of his genre paintings and in the second blog I will look at how he, like Caravaggio before him, was a master of tenebrism.
Georges de la Tour was born in 1593 in Vic-sur-Seille, a small town in the department of Lorraine in north-eastern France but which, at the time, was part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was one of seven children born to his father Jean, a baker and mother Sybille. Details of his early life are sparse but we know he married Diane le Nerf when he was twenty-four and they went on to have ten children. Three years after marrying the couple moved to Lunéville, which was his wife’s home town, and was also just a short distance from Georges’ birthplace. It was here that he spent the rest of his life. He had quite a successful career and his paintings were bought by the likes of King Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu and the Duke of Lorraine whom he worked for between 1639 and 1642. He died in 1652 just short of his fifty-ninth birthday.
Paintings featuring card players, and the perils of being cheated of your winnings, were not an unusual subject and one of the most famous was completed around 1594 by Caravaggio. It was entitled The Cardsharps and now hangs in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. The boy on the right is the “cheater” and his older accomplice in the middle is giving him signs as to the cards held by his opponent.
The first of the Georges de la Tour paintings I want to showcase is one entitled Le Tricheur à l’as de carreau or The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds which he completed around 1635 and is now to be found in the Louvre. It is easy to see the similarity between this painting and the one painted forty years earlier by the Italian Master. This seventeenth century work was put on show at the 1934 exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris entitled The Painters of Reality in France in the seventeenth century and it was through this memorable exhibition that French 17th century art was brought back to prominence and works by Georges de la Tour, who had almost been forgotten by French art lovers, once again became popular and his works following the exhibition were in great demand.
The first thing we must decide on is what is going on. On the right is a man dressed in the most expensive clothes carefully studying his hand of cards. There is something about his appearance which makes us believe that he is slightly naive as his conspirators exchange sidelong glances. He is slightly set apart from the other three characters. Is he there at his own volition or has he been seduced into coming to the gambling den by the courtesan who sits next to him? In a way it is a painting with a moral. It is a depiction of a man who has to withstand three great inducements. He has to withstand the temptations of lust brought on by the presence of the courtesan and serving maid, the temptation of alcohol which is being handed out to the card players and of course he has to resist the vice of gambling French moral standards of the time frowned upon the three vices. However he has put his moral standards to one side and for that, we know, by what we see happening before us, will be his undoing.
The courtesan is centre stage in the painting. On the table by her is a small pile of money. It is not as large as that of the guests but that will soon change. Her clothes are sumptuous. The plunging neckline of her costume no doubt titillates her male guest and probably distracts him from his game. Her hair is topped by a fancy and fashionable feathered headdress. Look at her eyes. They are shifty. Her whole expression, her whole demeanour, is one of deceitfulness. Her right hand points to her co-conspirator probably advising him to play his hand. We see him retrieving the ace of diamonds from under his belt, which will complete his winning hand. The serving wench brings wine to the table and she too has a deceitful look about her as she casts a sidelong glance at the “mark”. She knows what is going on. She is part of the conspiracy. The man, who is slightly in shadow and who is retrieving the ace of diamond looks out at us. We have been drawn into this plot. It is as if now we are also co-conspirators.
A copy of this work which Georges de la Tour completed later can be found at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth Texas, the same gallery which owns the Caravaggio painting, Cheaters. This painting is entitled Cheat with Ace of Clubs and once again is a moralistic painting warning people against the vices of lust, excess wine and gambling. Like the painting in the Louvre the characters are the same, the shifty looks of the deceivers are the same it is just the suit of cards has changed from diamonds to clubs.
Four years before Georges de la Tour embarked on the theme of cheating at cards he focused on another piece of skulduggery – pick-pockets and con-artists. The work in question was known as The Fortune Teller which he completed during the 1630’s and can now be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In this work we see a naive young man standing between two young women. He is well dressed and one is given the impression that he is also wealthy and ideal rich picking for the pick-pocket. To the right of the painting is the wrinkle-skinned old crone who purports to be a fortune teller and has extracted a silver coin from the young man as payment for her telling him his fortune. She is about to take the coin from his hand, and as part of the gypsy fortune-teller ritual, she will then cross his palm with it. She, like the three younger women, are colourfully dressed and portrayed as gypsies. As is often the case, even in today’s time, gypsies are pictorially portrayed in this work of art as thieves. The crime is clearly there for us to witness as whilst the young man is engrossed in what the fortune teller has to say and at the same time as he hands over his fee the young lady on the right of the painting delicately removes the coin purse from the pocket. However that is not all the young man is about to lose. Look at the young woman between the fortune teller and the man. She is more soberly dressed. Look what she is doing with her hands. She is just about to cut the gold medallion from its chain which is around the young man’s neck and right shoulder. I like the way her eyes are fixed on his face in order to see if he is aware of what she was doing.
My final featured paintings by Georges de la Tour move away from the group genre scenes with the accompanying moral tale and focus on single portraits. These are really exquisite works of art. The subject of the next work of art is an elderly blind beggar and street musician trying to eke out a meagre living by playing a hurdy-gurdy. The hurdy-gurdy was the first stringed instrument to which the keyboard principle was applied. In France it was known as Viella a Roue , which literally translates to wheel fiddle and which describes the method by which sound is produced. The bowing action of the fiddle is replaced by a wheel cranked by a handle. The outer rim of the wooden wheel is coated with resin. When the crank is spun, the wheel turns and the gut strings vibrate. The player of such an instrument was known as a vielleur.
Georges de la Tour often painted several variations on the same subjects, and the depiction of a street musician was an example of this. He painted the one shown above, entitled The Blind Hurdy-Gurdy Player, around 1630 and it can now be found in the Prado, Madrid. The man is depicted in profile and, but for the title of the work, one would never have known that he was blind, although his eyes are closed. He has a trouble-worn face and his forehead is heavily wrinkled. His skin is swarthy from spending most of his time out on the streets. He wears a thick grey-brown coat with a white lace ruff. Look how the artist has spent time on depicting the texture of the musical instrument.
Another version of this work can be seen in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes in France. This work entitled The Hurdy-Gurdy Player was also completed by de la Tour around 1630. This is a more unsettling portrait of the beggar. He looks unkempt and uncared for. His facial expression is one of pain and anguish as he sings to the tune he plays on the hurdy-gurdy. He wears the same heavy grey-brown coat with the white scarf or ruff. On the floor in front of him, resting on a large stone, is his bright red hat with a plume of feathers and often this painting is referred to as The Hurdy-Gurdy Player with Hat.
An earlier version, around 1625, on the same theme can be found in Bergues, the northern French town, close to the border with Belgium. It is the Musée Municipal Bergues which houses The Hurdy-Gurdy Player with his Dog by Georges de la Tour.
In my next blog I will feature some of Georges de la Tour’s tenebrist paintings, a style which had been made popular by Caravaggio.