Georges de la Tour. Part 2. Religious works and tenebrism

My featured artist today would often bring into play the tenebrism style in his works of art.  The term tenebrism comes from the Italian word tenebroso, meaning dark or gloomy and figuratively can be translated as “mysterious” and is a word used to primarily describe dark tonality in a work of art.  Tenebrism was developed to add a sense of drama to an image through a spotlight effect.  Tenebrist works of art first came on the scene in Rome around 1600 and some of the earliest examples were by Caravaggio.  The dark backgrounds to his works and the shadows cast across the subjects of his painting where in complete contrast to small areas of light, often from an unidentified source, which lit up part of the main depiction.  Caravaggio’s tenebrist style was taken up by a number of his Italian contemporaries such as the father and daughter painters Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi and the great Dutch Master, Rembrandt von Rijn.  Many of the artists from outside Italy who came to Rome and Naples to study art also experimented with tenebrism.  Georges de la Tour was a masterful exponent of this style of painting.  In some ways his tenebrist style was slightly different from that of Caravaggio in as much as he would often include the source of light in his painting.  Although Georges de La Tour spent his entire artistic career in provincial France, far from cosmopolitan centers and artistic influences, he developed a poignant style as profound as the most illustrious painters of his day. In his lifetime his work appeared in the prominent royal collections of Europe. La Tour’s early training is still a matter for speculation, but in the province of Lorraine he encountered the artist Jean Le Clerc, a follower of the Italian painter Caravaggio.

Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges De La Tour (1640)
Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges De La Tour (1640)

One great example of Georges de la Tour’s tenebrist style can be seen in his work entitled Magdalene with the Smoking Flame which Georges De La Tour, completed in 1640 and which can now be found in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  In this work we see a depiction of Mary Magdalen, not as an aged woman living a hermit-style life in her grotto, but as a contemplative young woman.  This is a depiction of a vivacious young woman who sought the pleasures of the flesh in her early days.  Her arms and legs are bare.  There is a sense of melancholia and loneliness about her demeanour.  She sits with her left elbow resting on the table with her hand supporting her chin as she gazes fixedly at the burning flame.  Maybe she is mentally examining her past life.   Look how the artist has managed to achieve differing textures which have been brought to life by the light of the candle.  Observe the textural difference between her heavy red skirt and thin white, wrinkled blouse which contrasts with the blemish-free smoothness of Magdalene’s flesh.  On her knees rests a skull which is always looked upon as symbolising our own mortality and the inevitability of death.  On the table there are books of Scripture, a wooden cross and a leather scourge which alludes to Christ’s suffering and his eventual crucifixion.  These latter two items add to the sombre mood of the work.  However, besides Magdalene, the main subject of the work is the oil lamp which smokes and emits the light that brings a modicum of luminosity to the dark painting.  Flame from a candle is often looked upon as symbolising enlightenment and purification but in this depiction there is a smoky element to the flame which may lead us to believe that enlightenment and purification of Magdalene’s mind and soul are not yet complete.     Although our eyes too are drawn to the candle we should look at other aspects of the work and see the mastery of the artist in the way he depicts the various textures.   We have the well-polished skull and the leather cover of the books both of which reflect the candlelight.

Christ in the Carpenter's Shop by Georges de la Tour (1645)
Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop by Georges de la Tour (1645)

Another haunting work of Georges de la Tour in his tenebrist style is Christ in the Carpenters Shop, completed in 1645 and which hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.  It is a depiction of Joseph, a descendant of the house of David, husband of Mary and “foster father” to Christ, who was a carpenter in Jerusalem. In Georges de la Tour’s depiction we see Joseph leaning forward, busy drilling a hole in a block of wood with his auger, the shape of which mirrors the shape of a cross.  He is in his workshop watched over by Jesus whose face radiates in the large frame.  Once again the depiction of the two characters is swathed in darkness with only their faces and upper bodies lit up by the flame of the candle held by the boy.

Jesus holding the candle
Jesus holding the candle

 Jesus is seated and holds a candle to illuminate what Joseph is doing.  It almost seems that it is the face of Jesus which is illuminating the scene and not the light of the candle.  The act of holding up the light for Joseph to see by has an allegorical reference to Jesus Christ being the Light of the World as mentioned in the New Testament (John 8:12):

“…I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life…”

The contrast between the two figures is striking.  The bearded Joseph, a large hulk of a man, is bent over towards his young helper in an almost threatening stance brought upon by the physical exertion of working the auger.   In total contrast Jesus is depicted as gentle youngster watching Joseph’s every move.  The candlelight illuminates the young face of Jesus.  There is purity and innocence in the way the artist has depicted the face of Jesus.  What is also fascinating about the depiction of the young Christ is the way de la Tour has depicted the luminescence of Jesus’ left hand which is shielding the flame. Although this is probably looked upon as a religious work because of its title, it could well have been a simple genre piece looking with strong realism at a young boy watching his father at work.  If we look at the floor, on which we see carpenter’s tools, a wooden ladle and a curled wood shaving.  It could almost be deemed as an excellent still-life work.

The Dream of St Joseph by Georges de la Tour (c. 1640)
The Dream of St Joseph by Georges de la Tour (c. 1640)

The Dream of St Joseph was a work completed by Georges de la Tour around 1640.   The work was based on a dream that Saint Joseph had, as recounted in Matthew’s New Testament gospels.   According to Matthew, Joseph had three dreams.  One was to tell him he was to be Mary’s husband and the father of the Christ Child.  The second dream was to warn Joseph that he must take Mary and Jesus, leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt and the third and final dream the angel told Joseph to take his family back to Nazareth as all was now safe.  :

Matthew 1:20-21

 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 2:13

 “…When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him…”

Matthew 2:19-20

 “…After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt  and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead…”

We are not sure as to which of the dreams is depicted in this painting and it matters not.  However some art historians who have researched the works of de la Tour have offered a different reasoning behind the work claiming that in early art catalogues the painting had a much simpler title, An Old Man Asleep, Woken by a Girl Carrying a Candle.  So is this a religious or secular work?  In the painting we see two people, an old man and a child.  The old man on the right is seated next to a small table.  His eyes are closed.  His mouth is slightly open.  He is asleep and possibly lost in a dream world.  His right elbow rests on the table and his head is resting in his right hand.  On his lap we see an open book with the fingers of his left hand still lightly gripping a page.   Standing in front of him is a child, probably a girl, dressed in the garb of a biblical character.

Dream-like apparition appearing to St Joseph
Dream-like apparition appearing to St Joseph

She stares at the sleeping man and has her arms outstretched in a prayer-like manner. There is something strange about her posture.  It is almost as if she is casting a spell over the sleeping man.   It is simply a depiction of a man and a child.  There are no sign of halos on the head of the child signifying her as an angel and so one can understand why some people cast doubts on the biblical connotation of the work.

What fascinates me about this work of art is the tenebrist style Georges de la Tour has used in his lighting of the depiction.  The light from the candle flickers and is partially hidden by the one of the girl’s outstretched arms but it still manages to light up her face in a haunting manner.  She becomes apparition-like which of course lends to the idea that she is in the old man’s dream.  Once again, as in the last painting the girl’s fingertips become translucent and the page held in the man’s hand is illuminated.   It is a fascinating work and I will leave you to decide whether you believe it is a religious work and hence it’s current title or whether it is simply a secular work of art and hence its original title.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Georges de la Tour (1644)
Adoration of the Shepherds by Georges de la Tour (1644)

There can be no such doubt with regards to my final featured work by Georges de la Tour.  The birth of Jesus and the presence of shepherds is a religious scene which has been depicted numerous times by different artists.   This painting, Adoration of the Shepherds, was completed by Georges de la Tour around 1644 and can now be found in the Louvre. The first thing we notice about this work is the amazing candlelight illumination which is associated with tenebrism.  As we look at the work we feel the tranquillity and contemplative mood of those around the newborn baby.   Mary is to the left of the painting, her hands clasped in prayer.   Opposite her is the elderly bearded figure of Joseph.  He holds a lit candle in his right hand whilst his left hand guards the flame from being extinguished.  Once again, as seen in previous works, the light from the candle filters through between the fingers of his hand.  His depiction of the visiting shepherds is a triumph of realism.  They crowd around the crib with their presents.  The one holding a staff has brought a sheep.  The one next to him, slightly in the background has brought a flute, which he clutches to his chest and the shepherdess, or it could be a serving girl, has come with food in the shape of a covered terrine.  Next to the crib the lamb chews at an ear of corn which is providing bedding for the infant.  There is a simplicity to this scene and this could well be due to the omission of the wealthy trio of visiting kings, dressed in their fine clothes, and holding their expensive gifts which are often included in depictions of the baby in the manger paintings.  It is thought that Georges de la Tour’s depiction emanates from the Christmas tradition when villagers dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses to re-enact the Nativity scene and this premise is borne out by the way he has depicted the shepherds in fine contemporary clothing which is in contrast to the plain red gown worn by Mary.  Note the small shadow cast by the candlelight on her gown.  It is of a trèfle or trefoil, a three-leaved plant, which is part of the crib bedding and is probably a symbolic reference to the Holy Trinity.

In this and my previous blog I have featured two distinct types of paintings by Georges de la Tour and I will leave you decide which you prefer.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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