A Rubbery Contemplation
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Penitent Magdalen, painted by the French artist Georges de La Tour, depicts the biblical figure Mary Magdalen in a contemplative state. The symbols that surround her and the painterly style that La Tour uses to construct her body and the setting she resides in denote the story of Mary Magdalen’s conversion and penance as she chooses to reject sin and follow Christ. This subject is represented through weighty forms, as light is used to dramatize the scene. Georges de La Tour used his style of painting while employing symbols to communicate the theme of reflection in this painting.
Little is known of this painting’s early provenance. It’s location was first documented in 1890, when it was housed in a private collection bordering the Lorraine in France. The son of the private collectors moved it to Côte d’Or in 1920, where it remained until it was sold to the Galerie Heim in Paris in 1963. In 1978 Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman both bought the painting and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (“Metropolitan Museum of Art”)
Georges de La Tour painted many religious scenes that appealed to the followers of Catholicism, the dominant religion in France in the early 17th Century. French art remained under the influence of Flanders and Italy as they were recovering from religious wars. La Tour’s work was popular during his lifetime and then forgotten about until the 1930’s, when French art historians began to explore the roots of 19th Century Realism. (Sutherland Harris 277-278)
The oil painting depicts Mary Magdalen seated with her hands crossed over a skull that rests on her lap. She was a sinner who renounced her worldly pleasures for a life of reflection and penance. In this version of the Magdalen subject, she is depicted in the moment of her conversion, as she renounces her worldly life. On the table lie a candle, a rope or jewelry, and a gilded mirror, in which one can see the reflection of the flame and candle. The composition shows her seated in full length in a loose white shirt and red skirt in a dark interior setting.
He painted at least five versions of this same subject. It was characteristic of La Tour to concentrate on one theme and create different renderings of it. In each painting, he made alterations in design and mood, though in all four of the known Magdalen paintings, La Tour included the seated, full-length figure, skull, and a lighted candle or lamp. In the painting of the same name that is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the flame is blocked by a skull, whose reflection can be seen in the mirror. This figure holds a classic pose of melancholy, with her head in her hand. It seems that La Tour chose to represent a different moment in the story of Mary’s conversion.
The scene in The Penitent Magdalen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art emphasizes Mary’s contemplation. She is shown here repenting her sins and appears to be deep in thought, as she gazes toward the candle. Her attention is moved inward, as we cannot fully see her face but only her profile. She does not appear to be looking at the candle, but past it, to the mirror.
There are many symbols embedded in this piece that aid in the exhibition of its introspective quality. The skull symbolizes mortality, as it invokes a dead body. Humans will die and their bones will be the only things left of them in the physical world. The mirror represents vanity and reflection, as one uses a mirror to look at oneself. The deeper meaning embedded in the mirror symbolizes a looking into oneself. Looking at one’s own exterior alludes to inner reflection, as a mirror’s function is to reflect. The candle symbolizes the shortness of life as it can go out at any moment. A flame is also often a symbol for the light of the Divine Presence; God may be with Mary at this time. We can see the resonation of Mary’s sigh as the flame of candle is altered. The rope may be a tool used in penance, where one physically harm oneself with it to experience the pain that Christ went through before and during the Crucifixion. The rope can be used to reflect upon Christ’s suffering and grow closer to Him. If that form is in fact jewelry, it could symbolize the earthly pleasures that Mary gave up to follow Christ. The pearls are strewn onto the table haphazardly.
The luxurious trapping such as the gilded mirror and red fabric with glinting gold along with the graceful turn of the head mark this painting as the most elegant of La Tour’s Magdalens. (“Metropolitan Museum of Art”) The mirror and the pearls on the table are opulently painted, as we can see them glimmer in the candlelight that illuminates the scene. These luxurious objects may be indications of Mary’s legendary past as a courtesan, when she would have been able to afford such expensive goods.
After he found his style, La Tour isolated himself, closing his mind to the influence of other artists. His unique style set him apart from others, but leads one to question his artistic influences. It is unclear as to whether La Tour found his stylistic influence in Utretch or Rome. Michelangelo Mersi di Caravaggio, who painted powerful religious scenes in Rome, influenced the northern Caravaggisti. As one can see in Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, the light provides the viewer with a focus point, the body of the saint, as the background is almost completely dark. His followers took interest in Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light, emphasizing the contrast between light and darkness in their work. It was typical of these Caravaggisti to include the light source in their paintings. La Tour uses this technique to create his own visual language, as the light can have a deeply religious meaning, as the flame is very symbolic as the light of God.
La Tour simplified the forms that one would see in daily life into cylinders and volumes as they become almost abstract. The rubbery treatment of figures gives them an almost waxy look. This simplification is especially noticeable in Mary’s hands. Her fingers are each individual tubes that are intertwined over the rubbery surface of the skull. These forms lack intricate details as they are painted evenly and appear to be solid. The crease in between her arm and her hand looks very flat and we do not see the individual wrinkles of the skin. The figure’s hair sweeps down onto her back in a fluid motion. It shines and creates the illusion of a single form, instead of several individual hairs. The textures of her clothing are also depicted as volumes, though they do not appear to be as rubbery in quality. The red skirt and her shirt have visible folds; we can see that they are of a different texture than her body.
The light source in this painting is present and not hidden. The viewer can see the effects of the light on all the forms in the painting. One can make out subtle contrasts of the light and shadows on the wall. Even Mary’s fingers cast shadows onto her hand and the right side of the skull is shaded as well. We can see where the light from the candle does not reach as we see the shadows it creates from its two sources: the candle itself and the reflection of the candle.
As the light falls on the simplified forms, there is little complication of the surface, drapery, or texture that would deflect or splinter the light. Like the forms, the light is also geometrically simplified as it is cast upon smooth volumes. This invokes a classical stability and stillness, a sense of calm. (Davies, Denny, Hofrichter, Jacobs, Roberts, and Simon) La Tour uses a restraint in creating these forms so that the emotional feeling can come across more clearly.
The expression of the subject does not define this piece; there is no grand gesture taking place and we cannot make out any minute details. The light is the most dramatic aspect while the gesture and attitude of the figure are understated. We do not know what Mary is thinking about, but she seems to be in deep contemplation. Around her are symbols that relate to mortality, giving this painting a serious tone. The light is the center of the painting, creating a reflective mood as we see it illuminate part of the composition.
Davies, Penelope, Walter Denny, Frima Fox Hofrichter, Joseph Jacobs, Ann Roberts, and David Simon. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition. 8th. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.
Kleiner, Fred. Gardner’s Art Through The Ages, A Concise Western History. 2nd. Boston: Clark Baxter, 210. Print.
“The Penitent Magdalen Georges de La Tour (French, Vic-sur-Seille 1593–1653 Lunéville).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011; adapted from Ref. Fahy 2005. Web. 9 Apr 2012. <http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/110001283>.
Sutherland Harris, Ann. Seventeenth Century Art and Architecture. 2nd. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc., 2005. 277-278. Print.