Georges de La Tour - A Girl Blowing on a Brazier (La Fillette au braisier)

Georges de La Tour

A Girl Blowing on a Brazier (La Fillette au braisier)

Oil on canvas. 76 x 55 cm (enlarged at the top with a strip of 7 cm).
Indistinctly signed upper right: ... a Tour.

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La fillette au braisier is a late masterpiece by Georges de La Tour, created between 1646 and 1648. It is part of the very small corpus of paintings attributed to the artist, which comprises just over 48 works, and is one of the few paintings signed by the artist himself. The large number of publications featuring this image, as well as its presence in a number of important past exhibitions - including the Paris retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1997 - are testimony to the painting's appreciation. This high regard has also been evidenced by the often exuberant praise of leading experts: La beauté rustique du modèle, la source lumineuse unique, la simplification des formes, tout fascine dans ce petit chef-d'œuvre, writes, for example, Pierre Rosenberg (Rosenberg 2006, op. cit., p. 372). La fillette au braisier has been part of the Bischoff Collection for 45 years now. It is thus one of the few works by Georges de La Tour in private hands, the last ever nocturne, the last late work by the artist in private ownership.
The work does in fact elude description; every word seems superfluous, because although it is a genre piece, it is characterized by a contemplative silence, and an extraordinary sense of timelessness (May 1993, op. cit., p. 153). The girl, depicted in profile, looks down and blows into the embers of a small coal brazier. The embers are the only source of light within the picture; they illuminate the girl's face, neck and chest in a warm, dim glow. The background is shrouded in darkness, no anecdotal detail, no accessory distracts from the appearance of the figure, who is completely immersed in her activity. Again and again, the appearance of the girl (charme réelle), the subtlety of the pictorial light (belle unité lumineuse), the economy of the design and the painterly brilliance so emphasized, are revealed, for example, in the sovereign reproduction of the embers (une qualité picturale digne du maître; Cuzin 1997, op. cit., p. 262). Economy in the use of painterly means is also evidenced by the few brushstrokes with which the reflection of light on the sleeve is captured. The absolute subtlety in which Georges de La Tour works pictorial light is captured in its essence by the hand holding the charcoal basin, which is illuminated with a gossamer glow, or the contour of the head, which is drawn out of the dark by play of radiance and shadow.
The featured use of an artificial light source and the geometric simplification of the figure are characteristic of the artist's late work. Pierre Rosenberg dates the painting to around 1646, Jean-Pierre Cuzin suggests a date between 1646 and 1648, and Jacques Thuillier counts it as one of the last works from the artist's own hand. Thurnherr compares it stylistically with St. Sebastian tended by Irene at the Musée du Louvre (fig. 1; Musée du Louvre, inv. no. R.F. 1979-53).
Among those paintings considered to be Georges de La Tour's late genre pieces, La fillette au braisier is without doubt the most significant. The popularity of the motif and the importance of the pictorial invention is illustrated by the numerous copies that have survived (Cuzin 1997, op. cit., p. 262). One aspect that is still discussed today concerns the question of whether there was a counterpart to La fillette au braisier. Rosenberg brought this possibility into play as early as 1972 and named Young Man Blowing on a Firebrand in the Fuji Art Museum in Tokyo as a possible candidate (fig. 2; Tokyo, Fuji Art Museum, inv. no. 1236-AB047; Rosenberg 1973, op. cit., p. 176; Rosenberg 2006, op. cit., p. 372). However, due to the slightly differing dimensions and the open question as to the dating and authorship of the painting in Tokyo, others, like Cuzin (Cuzin 1997, op. cit., p. 262) and Thuillier (Thuillier 1997, op. cit., 254), view this thesis sceptically. In favour of this theory, a workshop replica has been cited which actually treats both compositions as counterparts (former Koelliker Collection, Milan; auctioned by Sotheby's, New York, January 29th 2009, lot 28); it is possible, however, that the popularity of the theme prompted the workshop to combine two independent compositions into counterparts when creating a copy.
Georges de La Tour began painting this motif of a girl or boy in the glow of an artificial light source in the 1630s. The first surviving depiction is considered to be a painting in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon (fig. 3, Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. no. DG 827), and it is assumed that there were other such depictions. With this motif, Georges de La Tour picks up a traditional theme that has its - literary - origin in a famous ekphrasis of antiquity. Pliny the Elder reports in his Naturalis Historia (Book XXXIV), among other things, of a picture by Antiphilus depicting a boy lighting a torch. The Utrecht Caravaggists were the first to popularise the motif north of the Alps, and Georges de La Tour probably received his initial inspiration from their works. How different - and unique - his treatment of the subject is, made clear by comparing the Fillette au braisier with Gerrit van Honthorst's depiction of the fashionably dressed boy who boldly looks out at the viewer while he blows on a torch (fig. 4, Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, inv. no. 2018.135). This comparison illustrates how different Georges de La Tour's timeless, contemplative depiction of the girl is.
When the Bischoffs raised their hands for lot 82 in the 1975 auction, they purchased a masterpiece by Georges de La Tour whose history reflects the critical reception of the artist's work overall. It is difficult to imagine today that Georges de La Tour was unknown to the art world at the beginning of the 20th century. His works were attributed to other French, Dutch or Spanish masters. It was only upon the publication of a short, yet seminal, essay by Hermann Voss in 1915 that he was brought back from oblivion. It was then the exhibitions and publications of the early 1970s, especially the research of Pierre Rosenberg and Jacques Thuillier, that gave a clear outline to the artist's œuvre. This explains why most of Georges de La Tour's works were purchased late, even those belonging to the collections of important museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museo Nacional del Prado and even the Musée du Louvre. Like the image of St. Sebastian Tended by Irene (cf. Fig. 1) housed in Paris, the present work remained undiscovered until 1940 in Toulouse. Following a thorough discussion among experts, it was unanimously given the status of a late masterpiece.
Georges de La Tour's position within French painting, and indeed 17th century western painting as a whole, is singular. He was not active in one of the leading artistic centres or royal courts of Europe, such as Rome, Florence or Paris, but in Lunéville in his native Lorraine. The depiction of reality in his early work and the contemplative, poetic rendering of light in his later paintings are unique, and researchers have attempted countless times over the years to fathom the riddles which his art presents. The fact that Georges de La Tour's œuvre has remained enigmatic is also due to the fact that although much is now known about his life, his artistic links remain obscure and continue to raise questions. Did he - like many other artists from Lorraine - journey to Italy? If so, where? To Rome? To Florence? How did he come into contact with the international Caravaggesque movement? What was the significance of his stay in Paris? Did he know Dutch artists like Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst personally? Or only in their works? Above all, the question of a possible stay in Italy is still controversially discussed today. What is beyond doubt is that La Fillette au braisier is an important Nocturne and a masterpiece amongst Georges de La Tour's late paintings - the last in private hands.

Ill. 1: Georges de La Tour, Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene © bpk / RMN - Grand Palais / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
Ill. 2: Georges de La Tour, Young Man Blowing on a Firebrand, Tokyo Fuji Art Museum © Bridgeman Images
Ill. 3: Georges de La Tour, Boy Blowing at a Lamp, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon © Photo Josse / Bridgeman Images
Ill. 4: Gerrit van Honthorst, A Boy Blowing on a Firebrand, The Art Institute of Chicago ©The Art Institute of Chicago

Provenance

Discovered in Toulouse, c. 1940;
Art market, Nice;
Acquired by Jean Néger, Paris, c. 1947;
By whom anonymously sold, Sotheby’s, London, 26 June 1957, lot 60, for £2,500 to Johnson;
Anonymous sale, Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 1968, lot 47, for £25,000 to Spencer Samuels;
With Spencer Samuels, New York;
Fletcher Jones (died 1972);
By whose Estate sold, Christie’s, London, 28 November 1975, lot 82, for £17,850.

Literature

Georges Isarlo: À la Sorbonne. Georges de La Tour, in: Arts, 4 July 1947, pp. 1, 4;
François-Georges Pariset: Georges de La Tour. Paris 1948, p. 267, reproduced plate 40;
Hans Haug (ed.): Chefs-d’œuvre de l’Art Alsacien et Lorrain, Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, exhib. cat., Paris 1948, no. 490, reproduced plate 142;
Marcel Arland and Anna Marsan: Georges de La Tour. Paris 1953, no. 20, reproduced figs. 20a-b;
Gilberte Martin-Méry (ed.): La Peinture en Espagne et en France autour du Caravaggisme, Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts, exhib. cat., Bordeaux 1955, no. 102;
Pontus Grate and Per Bjurström (eds.): Fem Sekler Fransk Konst. Miniatyrer, målningar, teckningar, 1400-1900, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, exhib. cat, Stockholm 1958, no. 34;
Boris Lossky (ed.): Das 17. Jahrhundert in der französischen Malerei, Kunstmuseum Museum, exhib. cat., Bern 1959, no. 45;
Hidemichi Tanaka: L’Œuvre de Georges de La Tour. Doctoral diss., Strasbourg 1959, p. 83;
Georges Isarlo: À l’exposition de l’Orangerie. Georges de La Tour, peintres de mœurs et de clandistinités, in: Combat-Art. no. 141, 1972, p. 10;
Benedict Nicolson and Christopher Wright: Georges de La Tour et la Grande Bretagne, in: La Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France, 1972, p. 136;
Hidemichi Tanaka: L’œuvre de Georges de La Tour. Tokyo 1972, p. xxv, no. 13;
Pierre Rosenberg and Jacques Thuillier (eds.): Georges de La Tour, Paris, Orangerie des Tuileries, exhib. cat., Paris 1972, p. 259, under no. 58;
Jacques Thuillier: Georges de La Tour. Milan 1973, p. 97, no. 59, reproduced p. 96;
Pierre Rosenberg and François Macé de L’Épinay: Georges de La Tour. Fribourg 1973, p. 176, no. 54, reproduced;
François Solesmes: Georges de La Tour. Lausanne 1973, p. 156, reproduced p. 105;
Benedict Nicolson and Christopher Wright: Georges de La Tour. Oxford 1974, pp. 14, 50-1, 54, 200, cat. no. 66, reproduced figs. 61 and 113;
Benedict Nicolson: The International Caravaggesque Movement. Oxford 1979, p. 65;
Hidemichi Tanaka: Problème de l’école de Georges de La Tour. À propos d’une nouvelle 'Fillette au braisier', in: Art History, Tokyo 1979, reproduced fig. 2;
Victor Stoichita: Georges de La Tour. Budapest 1980, reproduced plate 45;
T. Bajoy: De La Tour. Paris 1985, p. 95;
Benedict Nicolson and Luisa Vertova: Caravaggism in Europe. Turin 1989, vol. I, p. 135, reproduced vol. II, fig. 917;
Marina Mojana: Georges de La Tour. Paris 1992, no. 41, reproduced;
Jacques Thuillier: Georges de La Tour. Paris 1992, p. 294, no. 73, reproduced (and in expanded reprint of 1997);
Ekkehard Mai (ed.): Das Kabinett des Sammlers. Cologne 1993, pp. 153-155, no. 61, reproduced;
Francine Roze: Présentation d’une œuvre nouvelle du Musée historique lorrain. Saint Jérôme lisant, in: Actes du colloque de Vic-sur-Seille 9-11 septembre 1993, Vic-sur-Seille 1994, p. 115;
Christopher Wright: The Masters of Candlelight. An Anthology of Great Masters Including Georges de La Tour, Godfried Schalcken, Joseph Wright of Derby, Landshut 1995, no. 40;
Jean-Claude Le Floch: La Tour. Le clair et l’obscur, Paris 1995, p. 46;
Philip Conisbee (ed.): Georges de La Tour and His World, Washington DC, National Gallery of Art, exhib. cat., Washington 1995, p. 137, reproduced fig. 82;
Jean-Pierre Cuzin, in: Jacques Thuillier, Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Pierre Rosenberg (eds.): Georges de La Tour, Paris, Grand Palais, exhib. cat., Paris 1997, pp. 262-263, no. 59, reproduced;
Jean-Pierre Cuzin: Après l’exposition La Tour. In: La Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France, 1998, p. 62;
Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Dimitri Salmon: Georges de La Tour. Histoire d’une redécouverte, Paris 1997, p. 100;
Pierre Rosenberg: La Tour. Milan 1998, p. 124, no. 39, reproduced;
Jean-Pierre Cuzin: La Tour en 2005. Dix questions, in: Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Akiya Takahashi (eds.): Georges de La Tour. Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art, exhib. cat., Tokyo 2005, p. 212;
Pierre Rosenberg (ed.): Poussin, Watteau, Chardin, David…. Peintures françaises dans les collections allemandes XVIIe – XVIIIe siècles, Paris, Grand Palais, exhib. cat., Paris 2006, p. 372, no. 78, reproduced p. 133;
Laurent Thurnherr, in: Dimitri Salmon and Andrés Úbeda de los Cobos (eds.): Georges de La Tour 1593-1652, Madrid, Museo del Prado, exhib. cat., Madrid 2016, pp. 158-159, no. 30, reproduced.

Exhibitions

Chefs-d’œuvre de l’Art Alsacien et Lorrain, Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1 October-30 November 1948, no. 490;
Cent Portraits des Femmes du XVe siècle à nos jours, Paris, Galerie Charpentier, 1950, no. 32;
La Peinture en Espagne et en France autour du Caravaggisme, Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1955, no. 102;
Fem Sekler Fransk Konst. Miniatyrer, målningar, teckningar, 1400-1900, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, 15 August-9 November 1958, no. 34;
Das 17. Jahrhundert in der französischen Malerei, Berne, Kunstmuseum, 1 February - 31 March 1959, no. 45;
London, Courtauld Institute Galleries, 1972, on loan following cleaning;
Kunsthalle Bremen, on loan 1976-1980;
Georges de La Tour, Paris, Grand Palais, 3 October 1997 - 26 January 1998, no. 59;
Georges de La Tour, Vic-sur-Seille, Musée départemental, on loan, 2003-2004;
Poussin, Watteau, Chardin, David…. Peintures françaises dans les collections allemandes XVIIe – XVIIIe siècles, Paris, Grand Palais, 18 April - 31 July 2005, no. 78;
Poussin, Lorrain, Watteau, Fragonard…. Französische Meisterwerke des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts aus deutschen Sammlungen, Munich, Haus der Kunst, 5 October 2005 - 8 January 2006;
Poussin, Lorrain, Watteau, Fragonard…. Französische Meisterwerke des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts aus deutschen Sammlungen, Bonn, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 3 February - 30 April 2006;
Georges de La Tour 1593-1652, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 23 February - 12 June 2012, no. 30.

Lot 11 Dα

Estimate:
3.000.000 € - 4.000.000 €

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