Pious French Paintings in Sinful New York City

When it comes to renouncing the vanities of worldly life, most of us are quite content to leave such inspired acts of pious divestiture to the saints who have a vocation in that line. It is not that we regard these dramatic avowals of contrition with indifference or contempt. Quite the contrary. We may very well be awed by the very thought of them. But that doesn’t mean that we are tempted to emulate such saintly behavior ourselves. Sainthood, like genius, is a rarity in human affairs to which few of us in this fallen world aspire.

When it comes to great artistic depictions of saintly renunciation, however, our appetites and illusions are more easily aroused. The more we burden ourselves with worldly goods and succumb to the seductions of earthly pleasures, the more we seem to be drawn to pictures that celebrate the abandonment of material gratification. The modern sensibility-secular, cynical, hedonistic and wise in the ways of psychological compensation-seems to harbor an abiding nostalgia for a spirituality that lies beyond its reach, if not indeed its desire. We are therefore all the more responsive to pictures that afford us compelling opportunities for what is, in effect, a kind of moral voyeurism.

Something of this sort may account for the extraordinary appeal which the paintings of the 17th-century French artist Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) have come to enjoy in the last decades of the 20th century. Especially for the paintings that have come to be called La Tour’s nuits -nocturnal scenes of spiritual redemption illuminated by candlelight or lamplight as fragile and as impermanent as virtue itself in a sinful world-he is now one of the most admired artists of his period. So greatly admired, indeed, that it is a considerable mercy that La Tour is in fact as good as he is-at his best, anyway.

Exactly how good he is at his best New Yorkers have now been given an unusual-but short-opportunity to judge for themselves in the exhibition called Conversion by Candlelight: The Four Magdalens by Georges de La Tour , at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York has not been on the itinerary of either of the major exhibitions that have lately been devoted to La Tour’s paintings-neither the show organized by the National Gallery in Washington and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth in 1996-97, nor the one that closed last month in Paris. The latter exhibition, however, gave the Met an opportunity to mount this smaller show, which consists of six paintings-four versions of the repentant Magdalen from the collections of the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Met itself, plus the Met’s painting of a very different subject, The Fortune Teller , and the Louvre’s Adoration of the Shepherds . The exhibition is installed in Gallery 17 on the museum’s second floor-you turn right in the gallery at the top of the main stairway-and it closes on March 15, so there is no time to be lost if you want to see why such a fuss has lately been made of La Tour’s achievement.

The exhibition is, in fact, something more than a token representation of La Tour’s work. In bringing together four versions of the Magdalen’s nocturnal religious crisis, the Met focuses on what is central to the art itself-both its heightened, preternatural realism and its expression of yearning for spiritual redemption. There is a lot more theater in some of La Tour’s paintings of other subjects, and that is why the presence of The Fortune Teller , which is frankly a lot more fun than the paintings of the Magdalen, is important to the exhibition. The comedy that is staged in the depiction of the five overadorned figures in The Fortune Teller -a social comedy of vanity, duplicity and superstition-provides a requisite contrast to scenes of spiritual isolation and remorse in the four Magdalen pictures. The Adoration of the Shepherds is not, perhaps, in a class with the other five pictures in the show, and its depiction of what looks like a mummified Christ child makes the painting a lot more macabre than it needs to be.

It is, in any case, the four Magdalen paintings that command our attention, paintings in which the physicality of earthly life is at once brilliantly rendered and ruthlessly exploited so that we might better comprehend the human capacity for sin and redemption. La Tour’s Magdalen is a young woman in the prime of life, and the celebrated light that the painter evokes with such unflawed virtuosity fairly caresses every visible detail of her physical person. Yet these are very dark pictures in which the same fugitive light that illuminates the body is made the symbol of the Magdalen’s conversion to a spiritual vocation. The sheer poignancy of her suffering and regret is inseparable from the sensual appeal upon which La Tour has lavished such astonishing artistry.

It was one of the paradoxes, if not indeed one of the hypocrisies, of the Northern followers of Caravaggio’s radical realism-the school of painting to which La Tour, a native of Lorraine, belonged-that in advancing the cause of Christian redemption it dwelled with such undisguised relish upon the physical attractions of earthly life. Is this, perhaps, why the Caravaggisti-as such painters are called-and La Tour in particular have cast so powerful a spell on 20th-century taste? La Tour is, after all, a 20th-century discovery-or rediscovery, if you like. Prior to the period of the First World War, he had virtually disappeared from art history. And in the course of our rediscovery of La Tour in this century, a fairly large proportion of his acknowledged paintings have come to be acquired by American collections.

I doubt if it is owing only to La Tour’s extraordinary technical command of his medium that he has achieved this amazing appeal. My own view is that his paintings speak to our sense of spiritual loss at the same time that they gratify our appetite for pictures of our earthly follies. Be that as it may, however, Conversion by Candlelight is not to be missed.