Extracts from :
The Doors of Perception
Heaven and Hell
Georges de Latour
Painter in ordinary, first to the Duke of his native Lorraine and later to the King of France, Georges de Latour was treated, during his lifetime, as the great artist he so manifestly was.
With the accession of Louis XIV and the rise, the deliberate cultivation, of a new art of Versailles, aristocratic in subject matter and lucidly classical in style, the reputation of this once famous man suffered an eclipse so complete that, within a couple of generations, his very name had been forgotten, and his surviving paintings came to be attributed to the Le Nains, to Honthorst, to Zurbaran, to Murillo, even to Velazquez. The rediscovery of Latour began in 1915 and was virtually complete by 1934, when the Louvre organized a notable exhibition of “The Painters of Reality.” Ignored for nearly three hundred years, one of the greatest of French painters had come back to claim his rights.
The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, circa 1635-37
Georges de Latour was one of those extroverted visionaries, whose art faithfully reflects certain aspects of the outer world, but reflects them in a state of transfigurement, so that every meanest particular becomes intrinsically significant, a manifestation of the absolute.
The Penitent Magdalen, 1640
Most of his compositions are of figures seen by the light of a single candle. A single candle, as Caravaggio and the Spaniards had shown, can give rise to the most enormous theatrical effects. But Latour took no interest in theatrical effects. There is nothing dramatic in his pictures, nothing tragic or pathetic or grotesque, no representation of action, no appeal to the sort of emotions, which people go to the theater to have excited and then appeased. His personages are essentially static. They never do anything; they are simply there in the same way in which a granite Pharaoh is there, or a bodhisattva from Khmer, or one of Piero’s flat-footed angels.
A Young Singer 1645
And the single candle is used, in every case, to stress this intense but unexcited, impersonal thereness. By exhibiting common things in an uncommon light, its flame makes manifest the living mystery and inexplicable marvel of mere existence. There is so little religiosity in the paintings that in many cases it is impossible to decide whether we are confronted by an illustration to the Bible or a study of models by candlelight.
Is the “Nativity” at Rennes the nativity, or merely a nativity ?
Georges de La Tour - The Nativity, 1640s
Is the picture of an old man asleep under the eyes of a young girl merely that ? Or is it of St. Peter in prison being visited by the delivering angel ? There is no way of telling. But though Latour’s art is wholly without religiosity, it remains profoundly religious in the sense that it reveals, with unexampled intensity, the divine omnipresence.
The Dream of St Joseph
It must be added that, as a man, this great painter of God’s immanence seems to have been proud, hard, intolerably overbearing and avaricious. Which goes to show, yet once more, that there is never a one-to-one correspondence between an artist’s work and his character."
Géricault was a negative visionary; for though his art was almost obsessively true to nature, it was true to a nature that had been magically transfigured, in his perceiving and rendering of it, for the worse. “I start to paint a woman,” he once said, “but it always ends up as a lion.” More often, indeed, it ended up as something a good deal less amiable than a lion — as a corpse, for example, as a demon.
His masterpiece, the prodigious “Raft of the Medusa,” was painted not from life, but from dissolution and decay — from bits of cadavers supplied by medical students, from the emaciated torso and jaundiced face of a friend who was suffering from a disease of the liver. Even the waves on which the raft is floating, even the overarching sky are corpse-colored. It is as though the entire universe had become a dissecting room.
Raft of the Medusa, 1818
And then there are his demonic pictures. “The Derby,” it is obvious, is being run in hell, against a background fairly blazing with darkness visible.
The 1821 Derby at Epsom
“The Horse Startled by Lightning,” in the National Gallery, is the revelation, in a single frozen instant, of the strangeness, the sinister and even infernal otherness that hides in familiar things.
A Horse frightened by Lightning, 1820
In the Metropolitan Museum there is a portrait of a child. And what a child ! In his luridly brilliant jacket the little darling is what Baudelaire liked to call “a budding Satan,” un Satan en herbe.
Portrait of young boy
And the study of a naked man, also in the Metropolitan, is none other than the budding Satan grown up.
Study of a nude man
From the acounts which his friends have left of him it is evident that Géricault habitually saw the world about him as a succession of visionary apocalypses. The prancing horse of his early “Officier de Chasseurs” was seen one morning, on the road to Saint-Cloud, in a dusty glare of summer sunshine, rearing and plunging between the shafts of an omnibus.
The Charging Chasseur, 1812
The personages in the “Raft of the Medusa” were painted in finished detail, one by one, on the virgin canvas. There was no outline drawing of the whole composition, no gradual building up of an overall harmony of tones and hues. Each particular revelation — of a body in decay, of a sick man in the ghastly extremity of hepatitis — was fully rendered as it was seen and artistically realized. By a miracle of genius, every successive apocalypse was made to fit, prophetically, into a harmonious whole, which existed, when the earlier of the appalling visions were transferred to canvas, only in the artist’s imagination.