"Christ with Saint Joseph in the Carpenter's Shop"
This painting is composed of two persons: Joseph and Jesus, father and son.
Joseph wears a comfortable white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a brown leather apron; his feet are clad in double-strapped clogs. His bald if bearded head is bent low over his work: he is boring a hole in a joist with a drill he holds with both hands.
Jesus is seated, wearing an amethyst-color tunic pulled in above the waist by a bright red sash. His right hand holds a fat candle that gives forth an oversized flame, which he shields with his left hand ... "His fingers have an amazing translucency," is what every tourist who passes by exclaims. His brightly illuminated face is framed by blonde hair that falls in locks to his shoulders. A shaving, chisel, and mallet lying on the floor form a separate little painting, as if in another register. Despite the flame's intensity, even incandescence, its light shines only on Jesus's head and chest and Joseph's forehead and arms. The rest is submerged in half-light, or darkness - although never pitch dark. Brown is the dominating color.
In this painting too, the laws of light have been beautifully executed, if in somewhat forced fashion on Jesus's face. This painting is a composition - or rather a "casting of roles" - much favored by Georges de La Tour: one of the figures is set more in shadow than in light, as if "stained" by the light of the other figure. Here, the latter gives off such a violent glow, he seems like a vision. He is the "Keeper of the Flame".
The effect is the same as in Magdalene: a zone of ebony brown haloes the outlines of the figures, more markedly in this work. Here as well one can distinguish the famous circle rotating around the flame, something I am beginning to consider as one of La Tour's plastic devices. The circle is very clear-cut: it starts off with the face of Jesus, a high point of intensity, follows his arm downwards, his knee, on to Joseph's tool, ascending his arm and ending at his head, or more specifically, his forehead, a spot of light to be considered as mystical, a gift of the heavenly flame. A second circle, less distinct, is visible around the contours.
In this painting again, action is absent: Joseph is not actually at work, for his eyes are riveted on the flame. This "snapshot", though direct, is not indiscreet. It is skilfully staged to capture the two subject figures.
Two bent humps clearly stand out against the background: they are Joseph's back and head. His face is quite odd and very handsome: a high and protuberant forehead, deep set eyes surrounded by hundreds of little wrinkles, a sparse beard handled like a cloud of brown dust, with a mouth that is non-existent hidden thereunder. Joseph's left arm is geometric, handled like a hexagon, with three sides visible: one in the shadow, a second providing a transition, and a third in the light, fully illuminated.
The vision or specter that is the face of Jesus is described only front wise: the face alone is present, and suffices to situate the personage who is at the same time an agent of the "supernatural".
The impression of mutual understanding is underscored by the communion between their gazes, as sharpened and supported by the top of the flame, a mooring post for both pairs of eyes.
There is no definable background: it could be two or three centimeters deep, or several meters. In any case, it is of no matter to us. For here, as in La Tour's other paintings, the scene is intelligible enough, well enough situated. The floor only becomes floor where the models tread upon it. Further back, it imperceptibly becomes so immaterial it ends up as an abstraction that is, nevertheless, present.
In this work, a harsher technique has been applied than in the other two. The effects achieved in both Magdalene and Adoration of the Shepherds come across less strongly. In the Magdalene painting, this is so in order to heighten the feeling of silence and meditation; in Adoration of the Shepherds, it is meant to underscore the gentleness and emotional mood inspired by the newborn baby.
Not here! Here, the subject is handled, so-to-speak, "man-to-man". The solemnity of this apparition, be it an infant, has something deeply mature about it.
Beneath the frail envelope enclosing his profound puerility, one can already intuit maturity worthy of the Son of God.
Jesus is granted no more consideration than the old Joseph, yet still manages to seem wiser and more venerable than his father!
Georges de La Tour gives us no pink-cheeked, chubby little infant that tickles his viewers. The infant is already a man. There is nothing funny about his solemnity.
Joseph is represented as a mere carpenter, which, in fact, is what he was. Rugged and rustic, he works on...
The Son gives to the father.