Saint Joseph the Carpenter – Georges de La Tour


© 2008 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) was a great painter of the 17th century, but his work was forgotten until 1915 when Herman Voss rediscovered him. We don’t know a lot about him, and what we know is mostly hypothesis. He was trained either in Italy or in Utrecht. Then, he moved to a tiny city in Lorraine where he made his name. In 1639, the king himself call him to Paris and made him the Ordinary Painter of the King. However, he soon went back to Lorraine, where he died at the peak of his career.

In his art, we see the daytime scenes and the nighttime scenes. The first ones are in a cold light and are very precise. The night scenes are in the artificial light that excludes color. Usually, a red spot is painted to animate the brown’s range. Georges de La Tour liked the immobility in his painting as well as the silence and meditation.

His painting Saint Joseph the Carpenter was made around 1642 and has been in the French paintings department in the Louvre museum since 1948. Joseph is from David’s family and is Mary’s husband and Jesus’ foster father. The scene depicted in this painting is not part of the Bible. The carpenter is drilling in a beam with an auger while Jesus illuminates him with a candle. The flame is the only light in the scene and illuminates Jesus’ face. The disposition of the beam evokes a cross and announces Christ’s sacrifice. The elements present in the painting are a reference to an important cult in Lorraine during the 17th century which included Joseph, Jesus and the cross.

The light of the candle emphasizes the child and his left hand, which is supposed to hide part of the flame. The young face contrasts with Joseph’s wrinkled one. This contrast is emphasized by the reflection of the light on Jesus’ face, which seems to light up the whole room. This technique is frequently used by Georges de La Tour. Thus, he shows the divinity’s presence in a daily scene.


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