Georges de la Tour had an eye for a theatrical moment. Many of his best works are religious images set at night and dramatically illuminated by light from a single source; however, he also had a talent for contemporary scenes filled with lavish costumes, bright light and shady characters, like this one. Three people sit around a table playing cards: a sumptuously dressed young woman; a comparatively shabbily dressed man with aces tucked into his belt; and a wealthy-looking young man. The youth, wearing an ornate silk doublet and a feathered orange plume in his carefully coiffed hair, dimly stares at his cards, oblivious to the cheat in progress. With gold pieces on the table, the woman – is she a prostitute? – looks suspiciously to the side and points a crooked finger at the man to the left. It is unclear if she is signalling to the cardsharp, who stares suspiciously out of the picture frame at something or someone unknown, or to the servant girl, who wears a distinctive orange turban as she serves wine and casts a sly glance at the dupe. There is no indication of setting, just a blank background. Are they in a brothel? Are the thieves working together? Or are the cardsharp and courtesan at cross-purposes? What is the servant’s role? There are many unanswered questions. As it has a theatrical air, it could be a scene from a play, such as the parable of the prodigal son. Regardless, the main moralising message is clear: this foolish young man, tempted by gambling, drink and women, is in peril.
There is an almost comic excess to the scene – the cheating is quite blatant and the youth almost ridiculously naïve and foppish. In his religious painting, la Tour’s light is famously nuanced; but here harsh light illuminates all, accentuating the tawdriness of it all – costume colours verge on garish, the female card player’s oval face and décolleté are glaringly lit. Sideways glances, expressive hand gestures and a mix of black shadow and crisp white light create an atmosphere ripe with tension: what will happen next? No one makes eye contact: each figure is isolated, alone. The scene feels set for tragedy: this is going to end badly for someone, if not all of them. La Tour nevertheless depicts his characters with a subtle sympathy: the simple-minded youth seems more foolish than dissolute and there is a sense of sadness and peril about the thieves (remembering that in the 17th-century punishments for stealing included cutting off an ear, branding or death). The picture seems to warn of the dangers for all in a world of deceit and greed.
La Tour rendered every detail with meticulous care, from the light refracted in the wine glass to the precise folds of the servant’s headdress. The painting’s polished surface adds to a sense of suspended motion, like a stopped frame of a film. It is a distinctive aesthetic that adds to the air of mystery around la Tour.
Little is known of about him: he seems to have worked mostly for the bourgeoisie and bureaucrats of Lunéville and Nancy but was successful enough to be given the title of peintre du roi (painter to the king) in 1639. There is no record of his travels, if he made any, but his art reveals the influence of the art of Caravaggio and his followers, including Gerrit van Honthorst, who were fascinated with the representation of light. The picaresque subject of this work (and a similar version that is today at the Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth) is also Caravaggesque.
After la Tour’s death he was all but forgotten until rediscovered in the 20th-century by art historians. In 1900 only two paintings by la Tour were known. Today around 30 of his works have been identified, although there has been some controversy over the authenticity of some, with suggestions of possible forgeries, further adding to the mystery around his oeuvre.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1634 Rembrandt: Saskia as Flora, St Petersburg, Hermitage
1634–5 Anthony van Dyck: The Abbé Scaglia adoring the Virgin and Child, London, National Gallery
1635 Diego Velázquez: The Surrender of Breda, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado