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Georges de La Tour: the contrast between day and night

The art of one of Europe’s greatest seventeenth century painters is currently on

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Published: 6 Mar 2020
La Tour is a person wrapped in mystery. We know he was born in Vic‐sur‐Seille in 1593 and that he died in 1652 in Lunéville, and we also know he had 11 children and numerous stray dogs. It seems he was not an easy person to get along with and was therefore often viewed with suspicion. Nevertheless, he enjoyed considerable success and was even named “Painter to the King” by Louis XIII, in 1639.

Georges de La Tour is one of the great artistic rediscoveries of the twentieth century. This is thanks to the art historian Hermann Voss, who published an article in 1915 trumpeting the artist’s genius. Since then, generations of art historians have examined documents, paintings and sketches to find out more about this emotional, enigmatic and anti-conventional artist.

In La Tour’s works, spirituality and realism combine, and light and shadow create a perfect balance between brutality and sensitivity. His subjects come from everyday life, so his angels are ordinary people and his saints have no haloes or iconography. Instead of depicting aristocrats or classical models, he deliberately chose beggars and people from the lowest levels of society. In fact, his works are mostly small or medium-sized paintings depicting intimate scenes with no background landscapes. And in his later years they even become almost monochrome with simple geometrical structures that are far ahead of their time.
Georges de La Tour: the contrast between day and night

The Musicians’ Brawl

Georges de La Tour’s experiments with light are central to his art. All his works, in fact, are characterised by a profound contrast between day and night. On one hand, there are his daytime themes in which he displays crude and filter-free snippets of real life that are full of faces marked by poverty and the inexorable passing of time. On the other, there are the night scenes that portray splendid figures illuminated by warm candlelight. These still, silent figures are less troubled but still extremely moving as they are wrapped in a mystical aura that captures both their fragility and strength. A strength that is felt but not seen.

In his paintings, then, Georges de La Tour explores a dichotomy that creates a powerful sense of tension. First, there is a world of hardship lit mercilessly by sunlight, and second, there is the exact opposite. It is as if night offers a compassionate truce after the cruelty of the day. In fact, the exhibition currently on display at the Palazzo Reale in Milan until June 7th, seeks to explore the artist’s experiments with colour and is entitled, “Georges de La Tour. L’Europa della luce” (Light in Europe). Curated by Francesca Cappelletti and Thomas Clement Salomon, this is the first ever exhibition, in Italy, dedicated to the French painter’s works, experiments and relations with the other great masters of his day.

These may have been active in other European cities but La Tour still may have known them directly or at least enjoyed a relationship of mutual influence.

The exhibition is therefore a truly unique event. In Italy, in fact, there are none of La Tour’s paintings, but this exhibition features no less than 15 of the 40 existing works that have been attributed to him.
Georges de La Tour: the contrast between day and night

The Penitent Magdalene

Georges de La Tour’s experiments with light are central to his art.
Interestingly, the rediscovery of Georges de La Tour’s art is not only significant for this exhibition, as it has also been an important inspiration for the world of cinema in recent decades.

Peter Greenaway, for example, has said that the French artist’s work was a primary influence on his film The Draughtsman's Contract. This film, released in 1982, is set in 1694, in the English country house of the wealthy Herbert family. In La Tour’s works (like those of other Baroque masters, such as Rembrandt and van Honthorst) chiaroscuro effects and the interplay of light and shadow reveal truths and half-truths about characters who are often depicted unawares and usually while carrying out everyday activities. The same concept is at the heart of the plot of The Draughtsman's Contract in which the characters find themselves, consciously or unconsciously involved in relationships that are murky, manipulative and mendacious. It was, therefore, natural for Greenaway to be inspired by Georges de La Tour when lighting certain key scenes in the film with candles and he even almost explicitly recreates the compositions of some of the painter’s masterpieces, such as Magdalene with the Smoking Flame and The Penitent Magdalene.

The trailer of the film

Since Greenaway, La Tour’s work has gone on to appear in other films, too, such as Francis Veber’s The Dinner Game and James Ivory’s Le Divorce, as well as enjoying a brief cameo in Ariel’s secret grotto in the cartoon The Little Mermaid.