From February 7th to June 7th, 2020, at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, the first exhibition in Italy dedicated to Georges de La Tour. The exhibition is divided into five thematic sections and will not only focus on the works of the French artist, but also a reconstruction of the pictorial context of the 17th century. The aim is to carry the audience into the genre of natural painting and the relationship it had between northern Europe and Italy.
The artist didn’t see fame until the early 1900s. However, his painting is fundamental for a complete reading of the parallels among the main artists of the northern part of the continent and those from Italy. Georges de La Tour was a complex man. He was born in Lorraine when the region was still an independent duchy. In Lunéville, he had opened a successful workshop, where it is said that the duke himself spent time. In 1633, the French invaded the duchy, Georges was 34 and had to start from scratch. Having escaped from the devastated city, he had no qualms about ingratiating himself with the invaders. That same year, he offered Louis XIII his work, Saint Sebastian. When he returned to his Lunéville in 1641, he became a “painter of the king” and was the protégé of the governor of Nancy, despite the fact that the population hated him for his quick change of mind.
His works mirror the complexity of his life and the style also reflects many experiences, which always appear in different combinations and make his painting quite enigmatic and difficult to frame. He was trained in a Lorraine, rather excluded from the innovations of the most advanced painting of the time. However, soon Caravaggio became his model in the choice of themes drawn from the world of the humble, in adherence to reality with the dust and wear of bodies tried by fatigue and hard work. Even in the use of that “selective” light that illuminates only some parts of the scene, we can see the influence of the great Italian painter. Another artist who had an influence on La Tour was Guido Reni, from whom he learned more accurate drawing, as well as the noble and gentle expressions of faces paired with the balance of composition. There are also echoes of Utrecht Caravaggism.
The channels through which he met these sometimes rather discordant artistic influences are not clear. Perhaps it was a trip to Italy around 1614 that allowed him to first encounter these artists. Perhaps Caravaggio was mediated by the Dutch paintings found in Lorraine, or instead the contacts might have been direct. The only certain thing is the miracle of balance of his works and above all that particular use of the light. These characteristics defines his work, arousing the wonder of his contemporaries. Merit – beyond these influences – goes to him alone. It is that marvellous light that spreads into the surrounding environment, particularly in enchanting candlelight scenes, defined by extraordinary backlighting effects.
Furthermore, it is rather difficult to give a clear, overall assessment of his work. There is no real evolution. There are disparate phenomena that occur simultaneously. However, the very presence of different phases and styles even in the same period makes him a forerunner of modernity. Moreover, it is very difficult to identify the canon and origin of his works with certainty. He signed only two canvases, while the repetition of the themes and the different quality of the works attributable to him have led to the need, on a case by case basis, to assess whether the paintings personally made by him and those of the workshop. In recent years, he has also worked with his son and this would explain some false steps. However, this took place over the middle of the 17th century and La Tour had been surpassed at this point.
His painting style is quite distant from new Baroque approaches, where we find exaggerations, sumptuousness, tricks of the eye, as well as the richness and dynamism of the figures. The compositions created by the emerging artists who had joined this new style were complex and often irrational with their rather spectacular lighting effects. The works of La Tour, on the other hand, belong to another universe at this juncture. They are essential, marked by order, balance and calm. His faces are sweet and melancholy, devoid of Baroque’s extreme feelings. The artist’s complete attention is concentrated on light and on its sophisticated effects. On the other hand, interest in the composition is rather scarce. And it must be said, this aspect is not very original, due to the fact that its repertoire and inventiveness were limited.
Where the Baroque is crowd and noise, La Tour is silence and solitude. His paintings are for meditation. He does not want to suggest or seduce. La Tour reminds us that things do not always need to be “shouted”. There is something truly moving in simplicity.