Georges de la Tour and the Enigma of the Visible

Georges de la Tour and the Enigma of the Visible

Georges de la Tour and the Enigma of the Visible

Georges de la Tour and the Enigma of the Visible

Synopsis

Not rediscovered until the twentieth century, the works of Georges de La Tour retain an aura of mystery. At first sight, his paintings suggest a veritable celebration of light and the visible world, but this is deceptive. The familiarity of visual experience blinds the beholder to a deeper understanding of the meanings associated with vision and the visible in the early modern period.

By exploring the representations of light, vision, and the visible in La Tour's works, this interdisciplinary study examines the nature of painting and its artistic, religious, and philosophical implications. In the wake of iconoclastic outbreaks and consequent Catholic call for the revitalization of religious imagery, La Tour paints familiar objects of visible reality that also serve as emblems of an invisible, spiritual reality. Like the books in his paintings, asking to be read, La Tour's paintings ask not just to be seen as visual depictions but to be deciphered as instruments of insight. In figuring faith as spiritual passion and illumination, La Tour's paintings test the bounds of the pictorial image, attempting to depict what painting cannot ultimately show: words, hearing, time, movement, changes of heart.

La Tour's emphasis on spiritual insight opens up broader artistic, philosophical, and conceptual reflections on the conditions of possibility of the pictorial medium. By scrutinizing what is seen and how, and by questioning the position of the beholder, his works revitalize critical discussion of the nature of painting and its engagements with the visible world.

Excerpt

The familiarity of visual experience leaves us mute
inasmuch as it is so blinding.

—MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY

Celebrated for their aura of mystery, Georges de La Tour’s (1593–1652) pictorial works continue to solicit critical interest and public fascination. At first sight, his paintings suggest a veritable celebration of light and the visible world. From his diurnal works, bathed in an almost unnatural white light, to his nocturnes, illuminated by candles or torches, opening up the darkness of night to a visionary space of devotional meditation, the representation of light has become the very signature of La Tour’s pictorial practice. Anthony Blunt remarked on the notable absence of traditional seventeenth-century pictorial subjects and genres in La Tour’s works: “Unless—as it is not impossible—whole categories of his paintings have disappeared, he painted no historical, mythological or allegorical pictures and no portraits.” the absence of these conventional genres marks a radical departure from the pictorial subjects and idioms that dominated seventeenth-century French painting. Moreover, unlike his artistic peers Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and Claude Lorrain (b. Claude Gellée, 1604–1682), La Tour did not paint landscapes, skies, water, or clouds but focused exclusively on the depiction of light and the human figure. This lack of reference to the external world is compounded by the extreme . . .

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