At the heart of symbolism

The flame of a candle

No known portrait of Georges de la Tour


Nocturnes and candlelight works

Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) was born in Vic, a town of the sovereign duchy of Lorraine, caught in a stranglehold between the Holy Roman Germanic Empire and France. It was invaded on several occasions by the Germanic, Swedish and French troops during the Thirty Year War (1618-1648). In addition to the exactions of the foreign troops generating misery and scarcity, the duchy was devastated by successive epidemics.

The main events of this life of the native of Lorraine remain largely unknown and no portrait of the artist has ever been discovered till now. De la Tour expressed his taste for drawing from his earliest years. He would have become a disciple of Caravaggio under the influence of the Dutch Masters Gerrit van Honthorst and Hendrick Terbrugghen of the caravaggist school of Utrecht and the discovery of the works of the Italian Master during a stay in Rome. Anyway, Caravaggio was extremely in vogue at the time in the southern part of France and Lorraine.

Just after his alleged return from Italy around 1616, he married Diane de Nef, a lady of the minor nobility of Lunéville. As was customary, the couple spent two years with the de la Tour family. Then, Georges decided to settle in his wife's town of where he intended to be recognized as an official painter. He was effectively nominated official painter of the Duke of Lorraine, then of the King de France, Louis XIII, and enjoyed a great fame.

Very few works carried out between 1616 and 1630 have reached us, given that the foreign troops pillaged and set fire to the city in 1638. These paintings were probably representing portraits and religious scenes.

Marked by the atrocities of his time, he then painted half or full length popular characters with very expressive faces and hands. His first works made mostly use of daylight. Two masterpieces, in particular, illustrate this period, “The Cheat” and “The Fortune Teller1.

These topics had already been treated by Caravaggio. De la Tour regularly picked up topics which he copied with many variations. The nocturnal scenes were not rare at the time, but only gradually appeared in the work of the artist. The first painting of this style which reached us was entitled “Payment of Taxes”.

The dominant red, with strongly contrasted nuances, brings out volumes and evokes the style of the Caravaggist realism.

The scenes lit by the flame of a candle constituted the main aspect of the output of the painter between 1638 and 1642. These paintings, called “candlelight works” at the time, were not strictly speaking caravaggists. These works were carried out in a specific de la Tour's style, where forms and colours were the object of a great economy of means. Moreover, it would be in vain to look for a scene bathing in the atmosphere of the flame of a candle in Caravaggio's work 2. Lastly, the choice of the candle owed nothing to chance.

The monograph of Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), entitled “the flame of a candle”, enlightens us on this very peculiar form of light:

We have for the flame an innate admiration… rooted in our deep past which is not only his… The past of the first fires of the world.
The flame determines an intensity of the pleasure of seeing, over and beyond the commonly seen. It compels us to look.
The flame of a candle is, for many dreamers, an image of solitude… But the solitary flame, on its own, can be an upward guide for the dreamer who meditates. It is a model of verticality.

The flame of the candle often arouses in the spectator a fascination propitious to daydreaming, contemplation and the rise towards the celestial heights.

The realism of Georges de la Tour was opposed to the representation of celestial clouds, the celestial sphere of saints, prophets and angels as in El Greco. He gave preference to a more personal approach, somehow turned towards the inner meditation rather than towards an outer mysticism. He considered man's destiny, suffering and death without forgetting his afterlife. That does not mean that the artist continued covering former issues such as peasants, musicians or beggars; Georges de la Tour stuck to scenes representing beings immersed in their solitude.

Although immersed into a surrounding world filled with light, deep inside beings are living in darkness. As Gaston Bachelard writes: “it seems that there are at the bottom of us dark corners which tolerate only a wavering light” which tries to make us understand that the true light is above all within us. This light lets us foresee an immense inner Sky, an unbounded Sky, as vast as the Sky above our heads. The outer and inner being's aspects partake in the balance and harmony of the world and, consequently, they can only be acountable one another.

Georges de la Tour's “candlelight works” refer to a true symbol intended to enlighten the being to his true destiny consisting in discovering his own inner light and rising towards the celestial heights.

As El Greco and especially Caravaggio, Georges de la Tour became famous during his lifetime and sank into oblivion after his death, before reappearing at the beginning of the 20th century.

1 back The left part of the canvas was certainly cut down by a rather broad band which unbalanced its composition. At the origin, the painting must have had similar proportions to those of the “The Cheat”.

2 back Only the work entitled “The seven works of Mercy” (1607) contains a source of light which could be termed a candle, but certainly not able to illuminate the whole scene.

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