Buried in obscurity for three centuries, the art of French painter Georges de La Tour seems to literally shine in one of the brightest exhibitions of the year at the National Gallery of Art. La Tour is celebrated for his "nuits" or nights. In these nocturnal scenes, the intense glow of a single flame irradiates his religious subjects with an aura of holy calm.
Born in 1593 near Nancy in the duchy of Lorrain, La Tour was well-known in his day, painting for patrons like Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII. But as the area was ravaged by war, famine, plague, and political quarrels after his death in 1652, La Tour's art was forgotten. Much of it probably went up in flames.
Only about 40 original paintings by his hand survive, of which 27 are in this exhibition. (The only previous show of his work was in Paris in 1972.) The present exhibit includes recently discovered canvases such as a haunting late work, "Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness," (c.1645-50) found at auction in 1993.
With this show, it's evident La Tour's light will never be hidden again. He shows himself one of the most original painters of the 17th century.
His works fall into three categories: contemporary scenes of peasants and musicians rendered with utmost realism; theatrical moralizing tableaux that spotlight the folly of vice; and religious nighttime portraits.
Sometimes the categories overlap, as when La Tour depicts St. James the Less as a grubby wayfarer. Here is no remote saint in glory but a weary, flesh-and-blood traveler, clutching his walking stick with grimy fingers. At a time when artists like Rubens and Van Dyck were idealizing apostles in their religious paintings, La Tour portrayed his as human.
In his realism as well as his "tenebrist" style ("tenebroso" means dark in Italian), La Tour was probably influenced by the Italian painter Caravaggio. The 16th-century Italian had scandalized his patrons by bringing secular vitality to religious subjects. Caravaggio's model for a portrait of the dead Virgin was a drowned peasant woman whose body was recovered from the Tiber. His dramatic light/dark contrasts further energized his paintings.
In La Tour's "The Newborn Child" (which some scholars believe is a version of the nativity scene), light from a candle held by an older woman unites the three figures in a radiant triangle. The mood is silent, poetic. The figures are simplified to an irreducible monumentality.
The hottest export from France this year might be not a ripe triple-creme cheese or the latest fashion from chic couturiers but works by a 400-year-old painter from the provinces.
* The exhibition remains at the National Gallery through Jan. 5, 1997. It then travels to Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum Feb. 2 to May 10, 1997.