This luminous painting by French painter Georges de la Tour, a Christmas favorite, actually has an ambiguous subject. While it might seem obvious to identify the figures as the Virgin Mary and the newborn Jesus together with St. Anne, the painting’s official title is nothing more definite than The Newborn. Nothing in the scene rules out the conventional interpretation, but nothing demands it either; it could be a secular painting of two women with an infant, of a type common enough in the 17th century.
Ambiguity runs deep in the art of the baroque era. Full of contrasts and shifting, subjective points of view, baroque art can playfully or boldly challenge expectations and appearances, spin complex scenarios with multiple levels of meaning, or present monumentally still arrangements constructed with the simplest materials. Even the oeuvre of a single artist can present contradictions: La Tour’s small body of work is sufficiently diverse—ranging from sweetly mysterious vignettes like this to comedic depictions of uncouth beggars and shifty-eyed card cheats—that some scholars insist it is really the work of two different masters. Judgments like that may be more revealing of the scholar’s lack of imagination—an artist’s style may evolve predictably, but it may also undergo abrupt revolutions—but in any case, the pieces attributed to La Tour are fine examples of the subtler forms that baroque ambiguity can take.
A Trick of the Light
Take the way La Tour uses lighting effects. The strong contrast of light and shadow betrays the presumable influence of Caravaggio, who pioneered this characteristic baroque style. It is unknown where La Tour studied, but if he did not have direct knowledge of Caravaggio’s work, he would have certainly encountered that of other Caravaggisti. He made the technique his own, however. Caravaggio always located his light-sources somewhere outside of his pictorial space, but La Tour uses his trademark candles to play a little game with light and visibility. Visual art is invisible unless illuminated by actual light. Yet this painting seems to generate its own internal light from the flame ostensibly screened by St. Anne’s hand. (For convenience we’ll assume the traditional identifications are correct.) The figures appear to be bathed in its intimate glow, drawn into existence from the undefined void around them. Illusions like this can be so powerful that we will carelessly speak as if there is an actual causal relationship between appearance and reality—"The candle in the painting is shining on the faces of the figures"—instead of appreciating that the entire effect is a painted illusion, impossible to see without a real source of illumination.
The figures too seem solid enough. They appear to possess three-dimensional volume, with softly rounded surfaces that reflect light and cast shadows. Yet in reality—that is, on the flat painted surface—they are composed of incomplete shapes that dissolve into indistinct murkiness. Our brains are keen to identify objects by their visible outlines or edges—places where one area of color ends and another begins. Here the defining edges are hard to see, except where a bright patch of skin or fabric borders on the dark background; elsewhere they are more or less vague, and are mixed up with a second set of edges formed by the twilit strips on the figures where light turns to shadow. Trace an outline including these transitional zones as edges and you’ll have a very strange-looking figure indeed. Yet we perceive the complete figures because we know how to disregard the ambiguities and fill in the missing information. We build a form that corresponds to our mental image of what we expect to see.
Now consider how radically all these irregular shapes and their edges would be altered if the virtual candle were to be moved about in the pictorial space. Unlike the standardized human outlines we see with our mind’s eye, the actual painted shapes are subjective accidents, chosen by the artist to imitate the effects of a flickering hand-held candle on three figures as seen from a particular point of view. So while this composition might come across as being as serene and timeless as a still life, it is in fact a snapshot of a transient arrangement of light and color, chosen from an infinite range of ever-shifting possibilities. Subjective lighting effects like these, which lend the piece its air of naturalism, are not easy to paint. Certainly they can give art students so much trouble that, in my experience, so-called "tonal painting" is rarely taught; painting classes tend to focus on pure color and expressive techniques.
Realms of Shadow
Tonal painting, or chiaroscuro (Italian for "clear-dark"), was one of the great inventions of the Renaissance. Except for a few precocious experiments, particularly in illuminated manuscripts, it is absent from medieval art and icons, where figures cast no shadows and forms tend to look unnaturally flat or "cartoonish"; very often they are supplied with crisp black outlines that surround bright, unmodulated colors. In the pious medieval mind, there can be no shadows in world that is filled everywhere with the divine light of God. The humanist perspective replaced this spiritual radiance with a limited physical light that obeys rational laws. Not only does it define realistic-looking volumes and spaces, but since the source of this natural light is determinable by inspection of the highlights and shadows it creates, so too is the position of the viewer in space with respect to it. Every visual phenomenon has a cause that can be logically worked out. This is certainly a change from the diffused luminosity of the earlier aesthetic, but it is also true that when the light source is not shown within the picture, an invisible world is implied to exist beyond the material limits of the frame. Even in this painting, where there is a visible source, we sense a shadowy realm extending away from it in all directions.
Caravaggio and his many followers brought tonal painting to an extreme of development, but it was one of the first things to disappear in modern art. The impressionists made a radical shift toward using color instead of black in shadows—Monet used dark blues and purples to reflect how the blue of the sky tinges shadows outdoors—and expressionist painters like Matisse used any colors they liked irrespective of logic. Cubism and many other abstract styles generally ignore the effects of light altogether. This is not grounds for criticism: Chiaroscuro is almost completely unrepresented in the traditional art of most of the rest of the world as well. Japanese artists seeing Western portrait paintings for the first time wondered why the faces were "dirty," being unfamiliar with the depiction of shadows.
No matter how it is portrayed artistically, light is a potent symbol in Christian art. If the medievals had their methods of deploying it, later artists did not so much abandon them as extend their dynamic range—quite literally with chiaroscuro. Light and shadow have their meanings, and spiritual darkness is a melancholy reality of human experience.
If we accord this painting a more than purely secular meaning, we have nevertheless a completely naturalistic illustration of Christ, the "light shining in the darkness." Within the circle of the flame, the babe’s little forehead gleams next to the soft white of his swaddling clothes. But he is not aglow with his own inner divine light. There is no golden star in the sky to cast its beams upon him either, no radiant angel host. Those are the typical props of medieval and Renaissance portrayals of the Nativity (and some imaginative Counter-Reformation and later rococo art as well). But we have here the more usual northern baroque approach that shuns displays of the literally miraculous and lets the prosaic and the secular take their place as symbols. This may be thought to indicate creeping materialism and deteriorating spiritual eyesight, but it can be as correctly construed as revealing an intimacy and familiarity with the supernatural world that grants it comfortable entry into everyday life. It infuses the ordinary with extraordinary significance and calls us to find the sacred in the secular, not in dramatic gestures or obviously unnatural phenomena. The candle is the star of Bethlehem (if in eclipse), or better, a tongue of fire. It is infinite light distilled into a single flame.
In other paintings, La Tour in fact exposes the naked candle or other source of light, but here is it no stretch to say that he hides it behind the hand of St. Anne in order to symbolize how Jesus’ divinity was hidden from sight by a human form. With this gesture Anne also casts a blessing upon her daughter and grandson, and recalls the customary pose of Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation. We ourselves observe the scene from the darkness a few feet away: No candle light falls directly upon us. In this respect, we are put in the position of one of the unenlightened Magi or shepherds seeing the newborn Savior for the first time. The dark shadows in which we find ourselves therefore are not disturbing or forbidding, for we too have been drawn by the light and our spiritual darkness relieved by the child’s gentle influence.
Out of Obscurity
Like his work, Georges de la Tour is an ambiguous figure. The simplicity and stillness of his mature works rivals anything that Vermeer produced, but what little we know of him as a person offers disappointing proof of the danger of judging an artist’s character by the tone of his works, for he was by all accounts a bad-tempered and disagreeable fellow, inconsiderate to his neighbors and capable of violence. Yet there are suggestions that he was close to the Franciscans in his region. He chose to establish his studio in the artistic isolation of the provincial town of Lunéville in Lorraine, yet called himself with reason "peintre ordinaire du roi " (King Louis XIII’s ordinary painter), and enjoyed a comparatively prosperous career. But despite his success, after his death he was almost completely forgotten, his work scattered in small and out-of-the-way museums, misattributed or assigned to unknown artists. For almost 250 years, his name was uncelebrated, and no coherent account of his genius emerged until 1915, when a German scholar published an article that attributed several works to his hand, including The Newborn. Even then, his big break came only as recently as 1972, when a Paris exhibition gathered together most of his known works for the first time, and established his reputation as one of the great masters of the 17th century, one who made a humble flame become, in T.S. Eliot’s words, "Light, light, the visible reminder of invisible light."