Georges de la Tour and the Enigma of the Visible

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Dalia Judovitz
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     2017.
     192 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823277445.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Anyone who has ever stood before one of Georges de La Tour’s paintings—in the flesh as it were—will be aware of just how exquisitely captivating they are, and yet, how indescribable, how difficult to articulate in words their enigmatic delight and allure. It is to this task of uncovering the inner workings of these elusive paintings that Dalia Judovitz has acquitted herself in what can only be described as a long overdue tour de force. Sadly, academic art history often downplays the spiritual dimension of a painter’s life and work, implying that biblical or religious content and its painterly treatment is the demand of the commissioning patron and not reflective of the inner life of the artist. As Judovitz notes in Georges de La Tour and the Enigma of the Visible, there are few famous artists of this early modern period about whose life and circumstances so little is known as is the case with Georges de La Tour (1593–1652). However, with consummate skill, Judovitz opens for her readers—through a thorough analysis of a selection of his paintings—a vista into the spiritual imagination of this mysterious artist about whom so little biographical information has yet been found.

Judovitz addresses a lacuna in contemporary art historical writing: in the specific case of La Tour, the spirituality inherent in a work of art and how it is manifest in the medium of paint-on-canvas and made apparent in visual representation. Drawing on her own foundations in French philosophy and aesthetics, Judovitz presents an inquiry into the visual representation of spirituality. For example, there is nothing prosaic about her treatment of the symbolic value of light, a quality with which La Tour’s work is suffused. The search for an academic discourse with which to discuss the visual representation of spirituality in two-dimensional artwork is at the forefront in Spirituality Studies. Judovitz makes a significant contribution to this field with her superb interdisciplinary study, deploying the many academic skills and resources at her disposal, lending her sensitive insights both depth and discipline. Having been rediscovered approximately a century ago by art historian Herman Voss, La Tour’s star is now in the ascendant. Compared with his notable contemporaries, there is a dearth of writing about this artist, making Judovitz’s gaze upon and inquiry of these artworks an original and profound addition to the literature on La Tour. Hopefully, others will follow her example and bring similar resources and sensitivity to the analysis of works by other artists.

Excluding the introduction and epilogue, there are five chapters in this book, each dealing with one or two paintings and a theme—such as betrayal—with chapter 2 devoted to the character of St. Peter. Light, sight, mirrors, and reflections occupy the first chapter’s meditations on paintings of St. Jerome and Mary Magdalen. Chapter 3 delves into the symbolic role of the book, the Word, and the representation of reading with particular reference to St. Jerome Reading and The Education of the Virgin. Featured on the book’s cover, The Flea Catcher is the focus of chapter 4. Judovitz illumines for the reader “how this puzzling painting negotiates the transfiguration of ordinary reality into spirit through its treatment of the mundane content” (82). Chapter 5 considers the use of light and shadow, primarily in the paintings Newborn Child, The Adoration of the Shepherds, and St. Sebastian Tended by Irene (x2). The spiritual contents of the paintings are well conceived and placed within the theological context of the Catholic Reform of the 17th century.

My only critique of the book is that the scriptural texts might have received further treatment. They are well noted, but often interesting intertextualities are alluded to without being fully developed. However, for the reader unfamiliar with the biblical narratives, resonances, and inspirations behind these paintings, Judovitz offers a superb introduction to how they have been received by the artist. She has done a service to those who work at the intersection of theology, biblical studies, and the visual arts and are interested in pursuing research into La Tour’s paintings, drawing attention to the many, often subtle, biblical allusions within his art.

This is a very readable book that requests of its readers that they linger over sentences as one might pause in front of the painting or sit on a nearby bench and stay with it a while. Judovitz’s treatment of the paintings analyzed are beautifully written theological reflections and repay a close and savoring reading. There are also twenty-five full-color reproductions, along with four black and white detail close-ups, so the artwork being discussed is conveniently close at hand at all times.

Georges de La Tour and the Enigma of the Visible should be well-stocked and displayed in every art gallery and museum shop where a Georges de La Tour painting is to be found. It will be of use to all those with a specific interest in La Tour’s art and, more generally, in theology, spirituality, and the visual arts. I found myself searching for a major La Tour exhibition and apparently there is one this spring in Milan. I can think of no better preparation for such an event than reading this truly delightful book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda Dillon is Adjunct Professor at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin.

Date of Review: 
February 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dalia Judovitz is National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of French at Emory University. Her books include Subjectivity and Representation in Descartes, The Culture of the Body, and more recently, works on Duchamp and modernist aesthetics.

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