Spectacular discovery: An unprecedented composition from the atelier of Georges de La Tour
Old Paintings & Drawings
Wednesday 21st June at 6pm
From a private collection in Beaujolais since the 1920s, it has remained in the same family since 1967, but was moved to the Jura.Our painting is a major discovery, probably the most important in recent years in terms of the corpus of works by Georges de La Tour: a magnificent, wide-ranging, never-before-seen composition that broadens and changes our understanding of the great painter from Lorraine. It is a spectacular image, with real artistic power, a sumptuous unity of colour in warm tones, and great emotion in the evocation of a sacred figure alone, silent, facing the Scriptures.
The comparison is apparent with other works by the artist, in particular the four full-length Magdalenes in the National Gallery in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (ill. 1) and the Louvre: a seated figure, almost in profile, meditating in front of a still life, seen at night and lit by candlelight. It is a male figure, a young man with a beard and long hair. Saint Jacques, clearly recognisable by his cape adorned with two shells, is holding his large pilgrim’s staff. With his left hand, he is turning the page of a large book, lit at the back by a candle that is completely hidden, except for the foot of the candlestick, which is visible. The warm light radiates throughout the composition. Another example of La Tour’s use of a page through which the flame shines is that of the Magdalene with a large book from a private collection in the United States (ill. 2), where the breath of the flame seems to lift and bend the sheet of paper. In our painting, the effect is even more intriguing, since the candle and flame are completely hidden.
You might wonder which text is read by the apostle, given that he is not one of the evangelists. It is a work known as the Protevangile of James, a text attributed to Saint Jacques and widely circulated in the 16th and 17th centuries, a popular account of Christ’s childhood that defends and glorifies Mary’s virginity against all heresies.
ÉCOLE FRANÇAISE VERS 1640
ATELIER DE GEORGES DE LA TOUR
132 x 100 CM
FRENCH SCHOOL C. 1640
WORKSHOP OF GEORGES DE LA TOUR
Saint James. Canvas, 52 x 39 3/8 in.
100 000 / 150 000 €
This depiction of a Saint-Jacques is unique among La Tour’s nocturnes and is not mentioned in any source published to date. No other version is known. The representation of the same saint in bust form, wearing a large hat, which forms part of the series known as the Apostles of Albi, from his early youth, is of a singularly different spirit and conception (private collection, ill.3). It is likely that an original, now lost, served as a model for our painting, for which we could suggest a date close to that of the Magdalenes, around 1640-1645. The overall presentation and lighting scheme are also reminiscent of Saint Joseph the Carpenter in the Louvre, particularly in the lower section, and there are also similarities between the profiles of the faces of Saint James and Saint Alexis. The excellent state of conservation of the almost intact pictorial material reveals the beauty of the execution of several pieces: the hand in the centre, which is truly delicate, the refined tones (the grey leather mantelet, the silvery aspect, the old coral-coloured dress, the salmon pink of the sleeve at wrist level), the lower part of the calves and the feet wearing thick sandals. However, some of the shapes are too circled, and the material is a little flat in places, suggesting that this is the hand of a collaborator faithfully and skilfully reproducing a creation by the master that has yet to be found. For other compositions by La Tour, we know of covers of such high quality that they have long been attributed to the master himself and are now believed, though not unanimously, to be excellent studio versions. They give a fair idea of major creations: for example, l’Extase de saint François in the Musée du Mans or Saint Alexis in the Musée lorrain in Nancy (another, harder version, in Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland)1. Their status depends on how we understand the workings of Georges de la Tour’s atelier and how the replicas were made.
The creation remains admirable and one of the most ambitious in all of de la Tour’s work, highly complex in its art of circulating light, the book becoming like a lamp, strongly illuminating the middle of the body with the hands, the leather cloak and the shells, leaving the face in half-light, the eye lighting up brightly, and plunging the rest of the composition into a living half-light, in particular the magnificent lower part with the large feet shod with sandals, those of the pilgrim. Appreciated by the great patrons of his time, then forgotten for more than two and a half centuries, Georges de la Tour was gradually rediscovered throughout the twentieth century.
Although his painting is part of the evolution of European Caravaggism in the second third of the 17th century, our painting also explains why his style was so popular in the modern era and still moves us today. The almost photographic framing, which can be read straight away, highlights the abstract play of parallel lines around the strong oblique of the stick, and the book and the garment constructed in geometric masses. The essential remains, a Caravaggesque naturalism rendered almost unreal by the luminous book, the focal point and spiritual centre of the composition.
We would like to thank Jean-Pierre Cuzin for his help in writing this note.
ill. 1 Georges de la Tour, Saint-Jacques le Majeur, canvas, 117 x 91.5 CM, Los Angeles, LACMA
ill. 2 Georges de la Tour, Saint-Jacques le Majeur, canvas, 63 x 50,8 CM, private collection
ill. 3 Georges de la Tour, La Madeleine au grand livre, canvas, 78 x 101 CM, private collection
1. One example is the Saint-Sébast en soigné by Irène in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, which lost its original status when the version now in the Louvre was found.
2. We know that La Tour hired apprentices, and his son Étienne de La Tour, born in Lunéville in 1621, is mentioned as a possible collaborator, but little is known about him.