Spotlight on Georges de La Tour

Caravaggism reimagined: the unique spirituality of La Tour’s Saint Andrew

Georges de La Tour, Saint Andrew, c. 1620

In this edition of Spotlight, we focus on the French Baroque artist Georges de La Tour (1593–1652) and his mesmerising Saint Andrew (c. 1620) from The Klesch Collection — one of fewer than 50 works attributed to La Tour.

La Tour remains one of the most elusive and enigmatic artists in the history of European painting. Despite being celebrated during his own lifetime, little is known about his career and only a fraction of his presumed extensive oeuvre has survived. Upon his rediscovery in 1915, La Tour became best known for his candlelit night scenes and was propelled into the canon of art history as a fundamental figure within seventeenth-century French Caravaggism.1 While demonstrating a profound understanding of the new spirituality introduced by Caravaggio’s (1571–1610) realism — which integrated religious subjects into the everyday world, posturing that only through our understanding of reality we can attain spiritual truth2 — La Tour’s works offer a highly personal interpretation. His paintings are characterised by a subtle exploration of human psychology and meticulous detail, qualities more aligned with the Northern tradition than with Roman painting. Whether he encountered Caravaggio’s art on a potential trip to Italy or through the influence of one of Caravaggio’s Northern European followers, La Tour’s enchanting paintings attest to his role not as a mere exponent but as a unique contributor to the Caravaggesque movement.

La Tour’s Saint Andrew is one of the thirteen canvasses representing Christ and the twelve Apostles known as the Albi Apostle series, an important commission from his early career. While La Tour visited the subject of an Apostle as an independent work on various occasions, the Albi series is his only known Apostolate. Caravaggio’s veristic aesthetic had never been seen in France prior to La Tour’s rendition, a visual novelty which particularly aligned with the ideology of the Duchy of Lorraine’s strong Catholic reformist sentiments.3 La Tour presents the Apostles not as remote and glorious saints, but as humble, heavy-bearded ordinary men, offering relatable intercessors between our world and the divine. La Tour’s early practice of depicting figures inspired by contemporary life enabled him to seamlessly place the saints into the modern world with almost brutal veracity. La Tour’s sensitive reading of religious themes, however, is what sets him apart from other Caravaggisti.

La Tour’s Saint Andrew exemplifies his aptitude for executing emotionally resonant images and his view of religious painting as a medium for reflection and meditation. The artist captures the saint in a moment of enchanting stillness; having lifted his eyes from the pages of the book, Saint Andrew now gazes into the space before him, as if lost in deep thought over a passage he just read. The book acts as a physical barrier between the saint and the viewer, intensifying the solitary atmosphere of the painting. In his desire to depict the character in all its specific detail, La Tour deviates from the powerful chiaroscuro effects of Caravaggism and employs a clear light to delineate forms. With characteristic sensitivity, he defines every strand of hair and wrinkle, imparting an even greater sense of presence to his flesh and blood saint. La Tour’s celebration of detail in an otherwise understated scene is central to his distinct style. Even the colour palette is restrained: the neutral palette of browns and white is shifted only by what would become La Tour’s signature brick red. While La Tour would increasingly embrace Caravaggism later in his career, the refinement underlying the realism found in his moving Saint Andrew reflects a powerful synthesis of influences from the Northern European tradition and a personal engagement with the spiritual and visual aspects of his time. Unlike the distant saints of the past, La Tour’s saint looks remarkably human, just like us, showing the viewer that salvation is attainable for all.

Notes
1. Voss, Hermann: ‘Georges du Mesnil de La Tour’, in Archiv für Kunstgeschichte, vol 2, 1915.
2. Jacques Thuillier, Georges de La Tour, 1992, 49.
3. Conisbee, ‘An Introduction to the Life and Art of Georges de La Tour’, Georges de La Tour and his world, 1996, 49.

Spotlight on Georges de La Tour

Caravaggism reimagined: the unique spirituality of La Tour’s Saint Andrew

In this edition of Spotlight, we focus on the French Baroque artist Georges de La Tour (1593–1652) and his mesmerising Saint Andrew (c. 1620) from The Klesch Collection — one of fewer than 50 works attributed to La Tour.

Georges de La Tour, Saint Andrew, c. 1620

La Tour remains one of the most elusive and enigmatic artists in the history of European painting. Despite being celebrated during his own lifetime, little is known about his career and only a fraction of his presumed extensive oeuvre has survived. Upon his rediscovery in 1915, La Tour became best known for his candlelit night scenes and was propelled into the canon of art history as a fundamental figure within seventeenth-century French Caravaggism.1 While demonstrating a profound understanding of the new spirituality introduced by Caravaggio’s (1571–1610) realism — which integrated religious subjects into the everyday world, posturing that only through our understanding of reality we can attain spiritual truth2 — La Tour’s works offer a highly personal interpretation. His paintings are characterised by a subtle exploration of human psychology and meticulous detail, qualities more aligned with the Northern tradition than with Roman painting. Whether he encountered Caravaggio’s art on a potential trip to Italy or through the influence of one of Caravaggio’s Northern European followers, La Tour’s enchanting paintings attest to his role not as a mere exponent but as a unique contributor to the Caravaggesque movement.

La Tour’s Saint Andrew is one of the thirteen canvasses representing Christ and the twelve Apostles known as the Albi Apostle series, an important commission from his early career. While La Tour visited the subject of an Apostle as an independent work on various occasions, the Albi series is his only known Apostolate. Caravaggio’s veristic aesthetic had never been seen in France prior to La Tour’s rendition, a visual novelty which particularly aligned with the ideology of the Duchy of Lorraine’s strong Catholic reformist sentiments.3 La Tour presents the Apostles not as remote and glorious saints, but as humble, heavy-bearded ordinary men, offering relatable intercessors between our world and the divine. La Tour’s early practice of depicting figures inspired by contemporary life enabled him to seamlessly place the saints into the modern world with almost brutal veracity. La Tour’s sensitive reading of religious themes, however, is what sets him apart from other Caravaggisti.

La Tour’s Saint Andrew exemplifies his aptitude for executing emotionally resonant images and his view of religious painting as a medium for reflection and meditation. The artist captures the saint in a moment of enchanting stillness; having lifted his eyes from the pages of the book, Saint Andrew now gazes into the space before him, as if lost in deep thought over a passage he just read. The book acts as a physical barrier between the saint and the viewer, intensifying the solitary atmosphere of the painting. In his desire to depict the character in all its specific detail, La Tour deviates from the powerful chiaroscuro effects of Caravaggism and employs a clear light to delineate forms. With characteristic sensitivity, he defines every strand of hair and wrinkle, imparting an even greater sense of presence to his flesh and blood saint. La Tour’s celebration of detail in an otherwise understated scene is central to his distinct style. Even the colour palette is restrained: the neutral palette of browns and white is shifted only by what would become La Tour’s signature brick red. While La Tour would increasingly embrace Caravaggism later in his career, the refinement underlying the realism found in his moving Saint Andrew reflects a powerful synthesis of influences from the Northern European tradition and a personal engagement with the spiritual and visual aspects of his time. Unlike the distant saints of the past, La Tour’s saint looks remarkably human, just like us, showing the viewer that salvation is attainable for all.

Notes
1. Voss, Hermann: ‘Georges du Mesnil de La Tour’, in Archiv für Kunstgeschichte, vol 2, 1915.
2. Jacques Thuillier, Georges de La Tour, 1992, 49.
3. Conisbee, ‘An Introduction to the Life and Art of Georges de La Tour’, Georges de La Tour and his world, 1996, 49.