Most great artists are instantly recognizable. As soon as you see one of their works, you know that it can’t be by anyone else. If this is truly the mark of a great artist, then Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) must be among the greatest.

The 17th-century French painter, whose works are being presented to the Japanese public in the first ever comprehensive show at the National Museum of Western Art, had a unique style combining piety with dramatic lighting effects to create stunning canvases that were strangely neglected for centuries by the art world.

It is not difficult to see parallels between La Tour and his contemporary Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), whose few surviving paintings languished in obscurity until they were rediscovered in the late 19th century.

The exhibition is remarkable as it gathers approximately a third of the 40 or so extant paintings by La Tour, complemented by around 20 copies and related images of now lost works.

While Vermeer’s genius was in depicting the calm, prosaic light of domestic scenes, La Tour was a master in rendering the otherworldly effects of candlelight. The strong contrasts owe a clear debt to the chiaroscuro (light and shade) of the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610), and to the tenebroso (shadow) style of his Dutch contemporaries Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629) and Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656). But La Tour makes the technique his own by applying it with greater subtlety and realism. Indeed, this is the reason for the ubiquitous candles in his works, as the light in Caravaggio paintings is often without a source, creating a feeling of artificiality that La Tour ably avoids.

In La Tour’s world of flickering light and shadows, the spiritual takes on a greater sense of reality, like the angel that stands before the dozing man in the “Dream of Saint Joseph” (c. 1640), which is traditionally interpreted as the Angel Gabriel warning Joseph to flee into Egypt, although some scholars now dispute this interpretation. If it is an angel, however, the effect of the candlelight is truly magical, as it gives the divine visitor a solidity without compromising its otherworldly nature.

An exquisite stillness pervades this picture, as with the copy of “Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop” (1645), where the attention to mood is shown in the minute observation of the effects of light in certain areas, particularly in the translucency of the Christ child’s hand silhouetted against the candle, which reveals even the dirt under the fingernails!

This work also shows the strong compositional balance that characterizes many of La Tour’s works. Other typical La Tour characteristics are precise, uncluttered realism and simplified volumetric shapes. Both these qualities are in evidence in “The Flea Catcher” (c. 1638), which shows a plump woman, composed of harmoniously rounded shapes attending to her personal hygiene against a neutral, candlelit backdrop.

Despite such unremarkable subject matter, La Tour manages, through his chracteristic sensitivity, to capture an almost beatific sense to the scene, making it a true affirmation of humanity.

But, as exhibition curator Akiya Takahashi points out La Tour’s masterly technique was both his doing and undoing.

“In the early 17th century, this chiaroscuro style of painting enjoyed great popularity,” he explains. “In his own lifetime he was a successful painter, and was patronized by Louis XIII. But later this style fell out of favor.”

While La Tour’s solemn simplicity reflected the religious depth and classicism of 17th-century art, it had much less in common with the later Baroque style, which strove to reflect the tastes and interests of the increasingly rationalist and hedonistic upper classes. Part of this trend away from piety was spurred by revulsion from The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a mainly religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant princes that devastated much of Europe, including La Tour’s home region of Lorraine.

“Because of the war, the quantity of works that he lost during his own lifetime was great,” Takahashi laments. “I think only about 10 percent survived.”

While La Tour was in his element painting religious works or humble domestic scenes, it seems he also tried to broaden his appeal by tackling the popular diversions of the leisured classes. “Theater with the Ace of Diamond” (1620-40) initially seems to be an impressive work, but, without the magical candlelight and the profounder emotions that suffuse his other works, it ultimately comes across as cold, awkward and unnatural, except for the cheater, whose uncanny resemblance to the actor Hugh Grant, gives him a certain caddish sparkle.

Out of step with new fashions in art, La Tour’s work was largely forgotten after his death. The few works that survived stayed in the shadows until his body of work was comprehensively identified by a German scholar in 1915. And it was only after Western art had run its course of revolutions, through Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, etc., that the art public, tiring of relentless novelty, picked up the candle to examine once more the eternal beauty of this great painter.

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