French, 1593 - 1652
La Tour, Georges du Mesnil de; La Tour, Claude du Menil de; Latour, Georges de
Georges de La Tour was born in 1593 in Vic-sur-Seille, a large market town in the independent duchy of Lorraine, now part of northeastern France, that was the seat of the archbishopric of Metz. His family belonged to the provincial artisanal class: both his father and grandfather were bakers. No documents or information regarding La Tour's early career survive, making any account of his formative training conjectural. His apprenticeship likely began around 1605, perhaps in Vic with Alphonse de Rambervilliers (1560-1633), a writer and amateur engraver close to the bishop of Metz, and he very likely worked in Nancy with the painter, etcher, and draftsman Jacques Bellange (1575-1616). La Tour is recorded in Vic in 1610 and 1616, and there has been much unresolved discussion about a possible trip to Rome around or between those dates. The question arises because La Tour's low-life subjects and his bold tenebrist manner of painting seem to be heavily indebted to the work of Caravaggio (1571-1610) and his followers in Rome. But Caravaggio's influence was spreading throughout Europe in the second decade of the century, through followers as diverse as Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622) in Rome or Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) and Dirck van Baburen (1595-1624), who transmitted their versions of his distinctive style to their native Utrecht. Artists in Lorraine, such as Bellange and Jean Leclerc (c. 1587-1633), also explored such dramatic effects of light and shade, so it was by no means necessary for La Tour to have made an Italian trip. However, La Tour departed significantly from Caravaggio and his progeny in the north while retaining elements of both. His paintings--largely austere genre and devotional scenes structured by dramatic effects of day and candlelight, such as the National Gallery of Art's The Repentant Magdalen --demonstrate powerful introspection and intense spirituality. These qualities may reflect the strong Catholic sentiments of Lorraine, which bordered northern Protestant states.
In 1617 La Tour married Diane Le Nerf, an heiress to a wealthy family of silversmiths from Lunéville. On the death of his father and uncle in 1620, La Tour settled permanently in his wife's hometown, where he opened a studio and employed apprentices, who are documented in 1626, 1636, 1643, and 1648.
By the 1620s, and for the rest of his career, La Tour enjoyed substantial court patronage in Lorraine and royal patronage in Paris. In successive years, 1623 and 1624 for example, Henri II, duc de Lorraine (r. 1608-1624), commissioned important pictures from the artist. In the late 1630s, during the Thirty Years' War, the French took over Lorraine. In 1638-1639 La Tour spent some time in Paris, having executed works for Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), and acquired the title of painter in ordinary to the king; he presented a Night Scene with Saint Sebastian (location unknown) to Louis XIII. Between 1644 and 1651, the marquis de La Ferté-Sénecterre (1599-1681), the French governor of Lorraine, received six of La Tour's paintings as tribute from the cities of the region. La Tour's successful career was relatively short. He died on January 30, 1652, two weeks after the death of his wife; both of their deaths likely resulted from an epidemic.
The chronology of La Tour's work remains speculative. The realist daylit scenes, such as The Musicians' Quarrel (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum), are usually dated before 1630. A greater degree of stylization enters into such daylit genre scenes as The Fortune Teller (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which may date from the early or mid-1630s. Only two paintings are dated, the Repentant Saint Peter (Cleveland Museum of Art) of 1645 and The Denial of Saint Peter (Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts) of 1650. The austere and abstract Newborn Child (Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts) is also likely a late work.
[Gail Feigenbaum, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 271.]