de la Tour was a painter, who spent most of his working life in the
Duchy of Lorraine, which later became part of France. He painted mostly
religious scenes lit by candlelight. Although Georges de La Tour has
been increasingly recognized since the early 20th century as one of the
most interesting painters of his age and his works have acquired great
popularity, he was almost entirely forgotten during the three centuries
after his death.
Georges de La Tour's paintings, which are devoted to genre and religious subjects, seen in either daylight or candlelight, were conceived in a very personal variant of the style of Caravaggio. Many of them have a meditative, spiritual quality that has been compared to that found in the writings of his younger contemporary Blaise Pascal. This Christian atmosphere, which found expression in a style that seems to have moved towards an ever greater rigor of composition, simplification of forms and economy of means, has been related to Lorraine's involvement in the Roman Catholic renewal of the Counter-Reformation. Few facts are known about the life of Georges de la Tour, and few of these may be directly related to his paintings.
Georges de La Tour was born in the town of Vic-sur-Seille in the Diocese of Metz, technically part of the Holy Roman Empire, but controlled by France since 1552. Baptism documentation reveals that he was the son of Jean de La Tour, a baker and Sybille de La Tour, née Molian. It has been suggested that Sybille came from a partly noble family. The de La Tours had seven children in all, with Georges being the second-born. He and his siblings grew up in the wealthy surroundings of well-to-do artisans. La Tour's painting The Cheat (shown above) is of a group of card players. The painting, 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.
Almost all of Georges de La Tour's career was spent at Lunéville, a small town 30 km from Nancy in the then independent duchy of Lorraine. La Tour's educational background remains somewhat unclear, but it is assumed that he travelled either to Italy or the Netherlands early in his career. His paintings reflect the Baroque naturalism of Caravaggio, but this probably reached him through the Dutch Caravaggisti of the Utrecht School and other French and Dutch contemporaries. In particular, La Tour is often compared to the Dutch painter Hendrick Terbrugghen.
In 1617 Georges de la Tour married Diane Le Nerf, of a minor noble family. Her father, Jean Le Nerf, was the treasurer of the Duke of Lorraine and lived in Lunéville. The young couple settled in Vic in the parental house. In 1619, their first son, Philippe, was born, and the next year the family moved to Lunéville. The same year, 1620, the 27-year old artist Georges de la Tour was apprenticed to Claude Baccarat. It is known that around 1621-23 the Duke bought a painting by La Tour, and another one in 1624. Meanwhile the family of the artist grew, in 1621 son Étienne, who would become an artist, like his father, was born.
Georges de la Tour is best known for the nocturnal light effects which he developed much further than his artistic predecessors had done. To position the flame of a candle in the center of the composition so that it causes a character to emerge from the darkness or conversely, so that it reveals only a few details of the quest of the painter was something that La Tours became a great master. Above we see the profile of a woman (The Repentant Magdalene), a skull, books on a table. Thus we have devotion bound up with the shadows and the emergence of light.
None of Georges de 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, Georges de 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.
During the 1630s pestilence and war haunted the Lorraine region and the soldiers of Louis XIII ravaged the country. When, in 1638, the city of Lorraine went up in flames, most of Georges de la Tour's early works were probably destroyed in the fire. In 1639, La Tour was in Paris by the king's order. The King presented him with 1000 francs for some service (what kind of service it was, is unknown). Though from now on he was referred to as ‘Sir George de la Tour, painter of his majesty’. In 1645, the king appointed one Henri de La enneterre the governor of Lorraine. The new governor loved arts. He immediately established good relations with Georges de la Tour and became his patron.
Scholars differ radically in the dates they assign to individual works by Georges de 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 and the Carpenter" (shown above).
In his lifetime Georges de la Tour must have been one of the most admired painters. Not many of his works survived, and these can be divided into his early ‘day pieces’, and the later ‘night pieces’. But both attributions (he only rarely signed his work) and chronological order remain questionable. After his death in 1652, La Tour's work was largely forgotten until rediscovered by Hermann Voss, a German scholar, in 1915. In 1935 an exhibition in Paris began the revival in interest among a wider public. In the twentieth century a number of his works were identified once more, and forgers tried to help meet the new demand; many aspects of his artwork remain controversial among art historians. Georges de la Tour is an example of how artists can pass in and out of fashion and favor of the public.