The persons depicted by Georges de La Tour, even the most sacred, are always on a human scale. All their faces are expressive, imbued with nobility, even in moments of suffering or humility: the depth of their expressivity has more to "say" to us than the settings. With bodies that have the material appearance of objects produced by a potter's wheel, flesh that is full and solid like clay, free of any rough edges, they are part of the whole of what is being expressed, giving the work a moving harmony.
Nevertheless, among these distinctive features, the poses adopted remain very well balanced, very traditional: the subject figures are firmly planted, filling out the pictorial surface. Thus, the classical mode of expression is not overwhelmed by the more distinctive features of this artist's work.
It is also worth noting that Georges de La Tour never uses backgrounds in his paintings. There may be the odd prop, but rarely: a book or a table suffice to situate the scene. Even floors are seldom found, and then only to the extent that they are trod upon by the actors.
In all his oeuvre, Georges de La Tour uses brown or russet as the dominant colors. One might think this could easily produce a certain monotony, but looking at his paintings makes us realize there are numerous browns, ochers, beiges, combinations of russet, of orange, all of which sing out in perfect unison. Nonetheless, in the middle of this beautifully conceived harmony, some of the colors are amazingly violent.
In any case, Georges de La Tour never resorted to the harsh colors found in some of Caravaggio's paintings, colors as if freshly crushed. La Tour sought to achieve total harmony between expression, form, and color.
In his paintings, La Tour always brings in one actor more alive than a human being: the play between shadow and light. This makes the painting vibrate like the spurts of a dying flame. Moreover, it allows a new range of shades: yellows. Further, it creates a "background mystery" of all that cannot be seen. The play of light and shade turns some of his personages into specters; it underscores both the uncertainties of life and its miraculous or supernatural aspects.
There remains the question of how La Tour handles the play of shadows.
The flames are always high: they give the impression of being palpable and incandescent like molten metal. Contrary to the laws of physics, Georges de La Tour sheds light only on what he wishes to illuminate. This produces an impression of intimacy or mystery: the "subject" is licked by the light, the background is in the darkness. The darkness is opaque and heavy; the very air is palpable too, for the night is never pitch black, but instead brown like heavy smoke.
Inside or outside? The actors are so well situated that a landscape is uncalled-for. The background exists only to put an end to the composition. Is it a few centimeters or a few meters deep? We do not know.
The objects are illuminated in three zones: one of intense light, a transition zone like a duel between darkness and light, and then brown night. This gives their geometric form to the objects illuminated.
The shade and light contrasts are violent, clear-cut, sharp - or soft, diffuse. It depends on what sort of scene is involved. The Adoration of the Shepherds is handled more delicately, whereas Christ with Saint Joseph in the Carpenter's Shop is carved out in strong lines.
There are two main facets to La Tour's compositions: the classical version, where the figures are planted in traditional fashion to provide pictorial equilibrium and another, new, version used by La Tour to produce new and more dramatic harmony.
Adoration of the Shepherds is an example of the "classical composition". By contrast, Christ with Saint Joseph in the Carpenter's Shop is a new form of expression, more contrasted and less specifically dosed.
Nevertheless, Georges de La Tour always encircles his subject in a sort of wheel, with the source of light as its hub. The wheel turns and vibrates, as can be clearly seen in Christ with Saint Joseph.
As to the figures themselves, their interplay is translated in the fashion of overlapping scales or interlocking tiles (Magdalene, Adoration of the Shepherds).
All of La Tour's paintings are imbued with nobility and solemnity. Most of his figures are of peasant origin, but La Tour confers upon them a grandeur that transforms their lack of polish into a graceful and dignified bearing.
Another aspect of La Tour's oeuvre is its serene melancholy which, underscored by diffuse and softly contrasted light, is not a lamentation. Whatever the outcome or the suffering, these people remain calm; even in the face of death, their expression is resigned.
Why do La Tour's paintings inspire confidence? I think it is because his personages are depicted on a human scale. The saints are men with the same activities as ours. This is no doubt why his paintings were popular during his time: viewers could identify with the saints.