Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalen (1638-43)

Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalen (1638-43). Oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 40 1/4 inches. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

As you may have guessed, I'm on a bit of a New York kick and am going to be posting about some of my favorite works that I was able to see while there. The Penitent Magdalen by Georges de La Tour was one of them, a painting I make sure to always visit when I am in the city. Its emotional resonance for me comes in the contemplative pose of the sitter and the deep shadows that seem to recall any night one has spent sitting alone, awake, lost in your own thoughts. A lifelong insomniac, there is much in this picture that speaks to me and I hope it will have some emotional pull for you as well.

Georges de La Tour, a painter from eastern France (the duchy of Lorraine) who lived from 1593–1652, is not an artist who much is known about. His history is a bit sketchy at times and many aspects, like his early training, remain largely undocumented. Much is known, however, about the level of fame he garnered during his life. He was the main painter in the court of the French King for some time, and also painted numerous works for aristocracy. However, his religious works, and even some of his more secular scenes, were more often purchased or commissioned by the middle classes. His work was very popular, and he rose to prominence among his peers. Though documentation points to the fact that his output was quite large, what survives is sadly a small number of works.

De La Tour's style was very much in the Baroque style of the Italian Michelangelo Merisi, known more famously as Caravaggio. Though whether de La Tour studied in Italy, and was thus exposed to Caravaggio's work, or if promulgation of the the Caravaggisiti of the Utrecht School in the Northern countries exposed the French artist, the influence of Caravaggio is evident in the dramatic lighting, strong contrast of color, and the lack of idealization of the female figure. The Magdalen is not shown as a beautiful woman or in an idealized form, rather she is a portrayal of regular features and common looks. However, de La Tour's most beautiful technique is the simplification of form. There are no grand gestures or intricate details. His work shows a remarkable constraint not often seen in early modern French art. The shape of the woman, her desk and even the skull is pared down to basics and allows the other elements of the work, such as the strong contrast of light, to speak for it. The constraint is powerful in its revelation of emotional sentiment or feeling. The expression of the subject is the defining characteristic rather than a grand gesture or minute aspects.

Below is an excerpt taken from the Met's catalogue, a brief summary of the scene depicted:
"A sinner, perhaps a courtesan, Mary Magdalen was a witness of Christ who renounced the pleasures of the flesh for a life of penance and contemplation. She is shown with a mirror, symbol of vanity; a skull, emblem of mortality; and a candle, that may stand for spiritual enlightenment."

The scene is an emphasis on contemplation. Whether the Magdalen is shown repenting her past sins or if she is simply pondering on aspects of the Christian religion as they may pertain to her, the painting is simply a portrayal of a woman wondering. Her deep concentration and gaze toward the candle give her an air of subdued and controlled contemplation, a thinker deep in thought. However, her attention is absolutely moved inward, her gaze on the candle is unseeing, as if she looks right past it to the mirror behind. Is she contemplating her reflection? The viewer is left to wonder at what she is thinking of and is able to take away from the work whatever they please. If the painting's audience is religious then it would seem that they are viewing the Magdalen repenting her sins, moving from her lascivious past to a pure future. If the audience is secular, the skull seems to bring to mind a woman reflecting on death, morality or the brevity of life. The voyeristic quality this painting has allows the viewer to insert their own thoughts into the Magdalen and gives the audience a freedom to possess a moment of contemplation on their own worries or vanities.

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