THE young girl holds a candle, shading it with her right hand, which is rendered almost translucent by the flame. The reflected light illuminates the lovely, solemn face and the front part of her pastel-colored frock, leaving in heavy shadow the black wing of her hair, the rest of her clothing, and the background. This picture is considered to be only a fragment, all that is left to us of a large canvas by Georges de La Tour, similar although not identical to one still in Paris.
The chief innovation, at first sight puzzling, is her candle, a special kind called by the French a ``queue de rat'' (rat's tail), a coil of waxed wick.
Strange but true, this beauty, like most of Georges de La Tour's other paintings, was either lost or wrongly attributed for nearly three centuries. He lived in the Duchy of Lorraine, which in the early 17th century was independent, but soon after this was incorporated into France.
The reigning French King, Louis XIII, liked La Tour's work so much that, after accepting one of his paintings, he had all others removed from his chamber and appointed La Tour the official painter.
Shortly afterward came Louis XIV, who directed his minister to order all art to enhance the magnificence of the King.
The ``Royal Style'' developed, with its grandiose ideals based on antiquity. A great deal of this is to be seen in the Louvre. La Tour was forgotten.
His sincere, original paintings did not conform to the new order -- or to the levity and frivolity of the next or to the rococo that followed. They were ignored.
Finally, about 60 years ago, oblivion ended. La Tour was rediscovered -- first as a ``psychologically deep and aesthetically refined'' realist, later a forerunner of the Abstractionists, today as one of the greatest painters in the history of art.
Authenticating works by Georges de La Tour required the establishment of guidelines.
Among the first characteristics art critics look for are grandeur of form and nobility of style. La Tour has been called the ``painter of nights'': Nearly all the scenes are indoors, brightened by a single candle.
He insisted on the value of contrasts -- darkness envelopes, light reveals. Colors are almost startling in their uncommon shades and intensity. Rarely is there any indication of movement.
Use of close-ups on TV has its precedence in La Tour's compositions. Usually there is no foreground; large-scale forms fill the greater part of the canvas, looming in relief before an impenetrable curtain.
While his pictures were conceived and executed with uncompromising realism, he also had restraint and good taste. His interpretations, never exaggerated, reflect artistic integrity and human sympathy.
Georges de La Tour's ``Girl Holding a Candle'' has everything. An additional fascination derives from its mystery.