LA TOUR, Georges de
(b. 1593, Vic-sur-Seille, d. 1652, Luneville)
Saint Jerome Reading1621-23
Oil on canvas laid down on wood, 62.2 x 55 cm
Royal Collection, Hampton Court
Charles II seems to have acquired this painting in 1662. At that time it was listed as 'St. Jerome wth [sic] spectacles of the manner of Albrecht Dürer'; it was not until 1939 that it was recognised by Kenneth Clark as 'a very bad de la Tour'. Saint Jerome reading is now regularly discussed in the literature on the artist, whose popularity has risen dramatically in recent years. Having been born in Lorraine where he passed most of his life, de la Tour's style reveals a commingling of Italian and Northern Caravaggesque influences which suggest, but do not necessarily prove, visits to Rome and the Netherlands. However, his style remains determinedly individual and was equally the product of local influences. He was a man of independent means and was appointed Peintre Ordinaire du Roi in Paris in 1639.
There is a limited number of signed or dated works in the artist's small oeuvre and only approximate indications (some controversial) for the development of his style.
Saint Jerome reading may be compared with the series of Apostles at Albi (Musée Toulouse-Lautrec), usually regarded as early works although not all autograph. The figures of Saint James the Less, Saint Philip and Saint Paul are particularly relevant. Also significant is a variant Saint Jerome reading in Paris, a copy after a lost painting by de la Tour, which is a more sophisticated composition with the figure seen from above and numerous objects comprising a still-life in the foreground. A date of about 1621-23 has been suggested for all of these works, which herald the influence of Caravaggio.
Even allowing for the worn surface of the present painting, the chief characteristics of de la Tour's art can be discerned: the naturalistic rendering of hair and skin, the love of genre details such as the spectacles, the splash of saturated colour for the cardinal's robe and, above all, the mysterious light that illuminates the figure so powerfully. As a painter Georges de la Tour lifts the art of scientific observation onto a poetic level. It is not quite certain, for instance, to what degree the intense luminosity renders the paper transparent, but it helps to define the distance between the viewer and Saint Jerome in the picture space while providing a bright focal point on a vertical axis. The concentration that characterises Saint Jerome gradually envelops the viewer to the extent that the internal act of reading becomes synonymous with the external discipline of looking.
The painting was cleaned and restored in 1972.