"The Adoration of the Shepherds"
The painting is composed of five people, not counting the infant Jesus and the lamb. I believe they can be identified as follows: all the way to the left, Mary, wearing a wide, red, beltless dress, clasps her hands; next, we see a shepherd in a brown cloak with a grey collar with trimming: his left hand holds a crook. Between him and Mary, a grey lamb chews on a piece of straw. Further on, a peasant holding a flute wears a beatific smile on his face. A servant, attired in a laced bodice with puffed red sleeves down which runs a white stripe, holds out a terrine to the infant. All the way to the right, Joseph, uncomfortably and awkwardly crouching down, throws the light of a candle on the group; his left hand shields it with fingers benumbed by hard work.
Right in the center, Jesus in swaddling clothes sleeps in a crib of carefully smoothed straw.
Following this overall description of the painting, I would like to speak about its composition. I see two possible compositions, nonetheless, dependent on each other.
The first is the very classical one that would have the two main actors located at either end of the painting serve as borders limiting the scene. The three figures in the background are "parked" there but lack emphasis. In this case, Jesus would play the background role.
This composition could be diagrammed like this:
But I see a second composition, to which Georges de La Tour more probably resorted: here the three worshippers would be set against a sort of vault formed by the whole family. The effect would be to give a background unity to these groups.
The first composition is more classical: it would hardly surprise coming from a Nicolas Poussin, but the second one is more personal, more daring and even more symbolic: it is very easy for Georges de La Tour.
There is something strange in this picture: Georges de La Tour changes his effects: there is no longer a harsh flame highlighting a chosen part of the scene; here the light is so diffuse, it is as if there were a second source of light. This gives the group scene (rare in La Tour's work) the effect of unity; hence there is no rotation, since the flame here serves uniquely as a pretext for the lighting.
Comparing all the faces, you can see that the face of the man with the flute is flat, as if two-dimensional; then the servant's face is brought to life, hollowed out and, finally, the features of Joseph's face are fully modelled. This holds true on Mary's side as well... It can be deduced from this that the more a face is in the shadows, the less it is sculpted. This procedure provides the picture with depth: it gives the impression that the figures are in a semicircle.
In this picture, as in the other paintings by La Tour, the background exists but cannot be located: it is as if something indeterminable acts as a limit to the composition.
Joseph's face, although rough, is quite extraordinarily venerable, even patriarchal. Yet despite everything, it looks like Mary is the only one to receive the light: phosphorescent, proud, standing high, inaccessible, absent, she is the one most marked by the divine flame. She is calm; perhaps there are tears in her bright eyes...
None of the actors in this scene express the same feelings; around the newborn baby, all six are bent over in admiration but wear different expressions: Mary is outside the scene and calm; the shepherd is respectful and admiring. The man with the flute rejoices, enjoys the sight of the sleeping nursling. The servant is moved, busy and bustling, as if she were partly responsible for it all...Joseph is surprised, astonished, but very moved.
The scene plays out on three superposed levels. First there are the faces, representing the psychological aspect. Secondly, the hands, which provide the physiological aspect. Thirdly, the legs, an aspect impossible to define.
Hence, no matter what end of the painting one considers, there is always symbolism, sometimes more obvious, sometimes less. Nevertheless, every gesture leads to the most important being: Jesus. Whether the shepherd with his crook, the peasant with his flute, the servant with her terrine, or even Joseph with his flame, the attributes of each highlight the importance of Jesus. He is the focal point for every viewer, but not the center compositionally.
Group scenes require variety in attire, something La Tour achieves beautifully; nevertheless, a harmony of browns still dominates this work. The contrasts are deliberately softened to underscore the effect of calm mood the little baby's presence calls for.
The lacing on the servant's bodice forces the eye from right to left. Everything is composed in a fashion obliging the eye to follow a clearly defined path: