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The Magdalene with the Smoking Flame

Georges de La Tour

A Caravaggisti embraces silence

The inescapable influence of Caravaggio

When the whirlwind of violence, profanity and big art that was Caravaggio spun through Italy, he left a trail of newly-minted Baroque painters in his wake. Everyone wanted to be Caravaggio, and it was nearly impossible not to be influenced by the vehemence of his bold new style. Strong color, deep shadows, and the exquisitely rendered human form.

So many imitators arose they became known as the Caravaggisti. The first converts were in Italy, including Giovanni Baglione, Orazio Gentileschi, and his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi, but soon the movement spread to France, where it opened the eyes of a young man named Georges de la Tour.

Allowing Silence

Georges de la Tour was 17 when Caravaggio died, by murder or lead poisoning depending on who you ask, but the master’s work would live on in La Tour, and evolve in a surprising way. We don’t where La Tour learned to paint, and it’s only speculation that he traveled through Italy as a young man. We do know that he lived with his wife in the quiet town of Lunéville France, slowly growing a reputation as a painter of quietly powerful religious scenes, and was eventually named ‘Painter to the King’ by Louis XIII.

So why do we talk about La Tour? Many painters adopted Caravaggio’s style, but La Tour evolved it. Caravaggio’s work is all about the lighting. The viewer becomes a spotlight on figures in a dark room, capturing a moment with the clarity of a camera flash. La tour reduced the dramatic light source to a pinprick — a single candle illuminating faces lost in thought. Where Caravaggio’s light exposed violence, La Tour’s candles are intimate scenes of contemplation.

We love La Tour. In a race to make paintings bolder, bigger, and more dramatic — La Tour gave silence its space.

Reed Enger, "Georges de La Tour, A Caravaggisti embraces silence," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 27, 2016; last modified May 21, 2018, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/georges-de-la-tour/.

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