Silence Is Golden

John Haber
in New York City

George de La Tour

Modernism was chaotic and contentious, but its view of the past was classical and calm. For his unsettling confrontation with a prostitute, Olympia, Manet turned to Titian. To make realism a puzzle, René Magritte invested it with silence. Jasper Johns repeats an image from the High Renaissance too, sleeping soldiers at the feet of Grünewald's Resurrection. For all of them, art of the past held an uneasy quiet, a troubled sleep.

This year the National Gallery has shown two rediscoveries of the last century or so, Jan Vermeer—and now George de La Tour. And each time its older building has been home to a palpable silence. George de La Tour's Repentant Magdelan (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1635)

Hushed voices

Both artists had successful careers during the Baroque but painted little. Both faded from tradition after their deaths. Although a savvy art dealer in Holland, Vermeer surely neither knew nor cared about La Tour, active near Nancy, in northeast France. Yet one sees immediately why both have appealed to a modern sensibility. To explain it, however, I want paradoxically to begin with something of less concern to modern discoverers, what they painted.

The two derive from genre painting, the depiction of ordinary people in morally charged circumstances. Vermeer, of course, shows women in love. La Tour makes poor people and card hustlers into lessons in human dignity and deceit. Older by about a quarter century, he could take subject matter directly from the early Caravaggio and the inception of a new style.

Like the groundbreaking Italian painter, La Tour refuses to caricature the features of the card sharks. Here he departs from French masters with whom he studied. Looking at one scene of poverty after another, I easily forgot that he designed flattering moral tales for wealthy patrons. He never condescends to subjects, not even the villains. This is their moral dilemma too, and the treachery of appearances is ours.

In other ways as well, Vermeer and La Tour use the very means of convention to take the genre out of genre painting. Figures sit nearly motionless, in a markedly shallow space. Heads bow, whether in inward reflection or in concentration on the everyday. La Tour has the special power to imagine the commonplace with a vivid crudeness. His people may bend to eat, to crush a flea, or to pick a card as readily as to pray.

To a modern eye, nothing at all seems to happen. No wonder that, for many critics, the modernist silence has been an active silencing, a harsh denial. For others, from Kandinsky and Mondrian to the present, it has been a spiritual revelation. The discovers of Vermeer and La Tour participated unknowingly in that silencing, and yet they gloried in the nothing. Furniture in these two painters echoes the spare geometry of the composition, the rectangle of the painting, and the increasingly simplified human form.

Daylight and candlelight

Above all, one remembers these paintings as about light. It is the light of van Eyck or of Venice, but modulated and blended into the scene as they could never have imagined.

The same light that shapes and penetrates the people and their surroundings tells the story. Vermeer's strong daylight brings the outside world to a woman's chamber. La Tour's candlelight brings the presence of God and the fire of human meditation. In their late years, the light simply becomes the story, as both painters turn more and more often to religiously charged allegories.

Developed in layered glazes, the light brings these paintings their careful detail in hands and face. It creates their realistic textures and colors. I sometimes think of La Tour as close to monochrome, but that is more like his son Étienne and other followers. He could put a range of deep colors and varied brushstrokes into a single sleeve.

The firm light, taking one's eye across the entire surface, suggests what attracted modern tastes. It also points to what those tastes could not see, the unfolding of genre story—and the precise way in which the art defies traditional storytelling. Another artist would have modeled his peasants on saints. La Tour brings the dignity of the commonplace to his religious figures.

The light in each painter also helps distinguish their work, another thing that Modernism's love of the universal may well have overlooked. Vermeer's richer tones offer the drama of light. La Tour's night scenes are its melodrama. It adds gravity to his struggling beggars, hiding and softening their gaping mouths. They stand apart from the bare surroundings, and they thrust their own way through the world. Their extended limbs generate strong, repeated diagonals far from Vermeer's more restrained formalism.

La Tour's pietism is all his own. These characters suffer, they identify with their suffering, and La Tour takes them closer and closer to death. An early Saint James holds the sharp blade of his martyrdom as a formidable weapon. The last figures, like the Magdalenes or John the Baptist in the wilderness, have a lot to remember.

The painting itself becomes an emblem of that kind of intense, tormenting memory. The skulls symbolize vanity and mortality, but they also evoke the painter's work in creating human anatomy. The mirrors signify reflection, but both as thought and as art. Glowing fingers start to stretch and to be filled with the candlelight in defiance of realism. They seek out the flame, like coarse wood being worked by a more powerful, unseen hand.

Aiming for the connoisseur

The melodrama says something about why he never quite matches Vermeer's importance—or, for that matter, Magritte's treachery of the ordinary. The National Gallery must have come to the same conclusion. One should not miss this show for anything, but it clearly aims for the connoisseur.

"George de La Tour and His World" sounds like the fashionable concern today with social context. Instead, it places twenty-seven of his few surviving works beside sources, followers, and dubious attributions. Hung by subject rather than chronologically, it asks one to join in figuring out who copied whom. (Hint: when in doubt, attribute the work to Étienne.)

Sympathetically arranged and lighted, the works include some amazing rarities. For the first time in my memory, the Frick collection lent something. (I thought that violated its charter, but no: that constraint governs only works acquired in Frick's lifetime.) No one can help but be touched by the beauty and fervor of La Tour's night. Perhaps the show will even create a few connoisseurs.

Postmodernism teaches one to fill in the silences. One sees better now the individuality of artists and works, the world in which they traveled, the genres they never abandoned, and the breakdown of meaning they made so poignant and perplexing. Still, for a couple of afternoons this year down in Washington, I had no trouble growing nostalgic for modernist tastes. In the gleaming shadows of Vermeer and La Tour, silence literally is golden.

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The retrospective of George de La Tour ran through January 5, 1997, at The National Gallery in Washington.


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