LA TOUR, Georges de
(b. 1593, Vic-sur-Seille, d. 1652, Lunéville)

The Dream of St Joseph

c. 1640
Oil on canvas, 93 x 81 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes

La Tour's mature pictures form a close-knit group which must date from the years immediately before and after 1640. None of them is documented, although some of them are signed. The most typical and one of the best preserved of them is the so-called Dream of Joseph at Nantes, which in many respects forms a microcosm of La Tour's art and the problems which surround it, in terms of both history and the interpretation of the subject.

As recently as 1913 it was attributed to Rembrandt, although the picture was clearly signed La Tour in the top right-hand corner. It is interesting that an illustrious name should have been sought for so magical a picture, and the subject, even now, is as elusive as was the former difficulty of attribution. A youth in biblical costume is making a beckoning or announcing gesture before an old man who has fallen asleep reading a book. The traditional interpretation is that it is a Dream of Joseph, even though Joseph is normally shown as a carpenter (as he is in La Tour's Louvre picture). The youth is hardly the angel Gabriel either, coming to warn Joseph to flee to Egypt in order to escape the impending massacre of all children in Bethlehem by Herod's soldiers.

A possible explanation for this enigmatic picture is that it depicts the moment when the young Samuel, having been, he thinks, summoned by the elderly priest Eli, finds him asleep. This surprises Samuel, who at that instant realizes that it is God's voice calling him. If this interpretation of the subject is correct, La Tour has with characteristic subtlety and understatement shown the exact moment when the youth Samuel arrives before the sleeping old man, with a 'here I am' gesture. Samuel's pose is unforgettable. All attempts at the naturalism with which La Tour is so wrongly credited have been abandoned, leaving a Mannerist twisting of the fingers and the caprice of shielding most of the candle flame. Above all, there is an exquisite stillness, which pervades not only this picture but also the other all-too-few masterpieces from this period.