This painting was commissioned when Georges de La Tour was in his prime as a painter. The subject is a classic one, very much in keeping with the Counter-Reformation times. Though this work may cover a secular subject, it nevertheless takes a highly moralizing tone!
A young blade who believes himself strong and invincible, a bit like the prodigal son, turns up at a fair. He meets a dream woman who rapidly baits him into visiting the old woman who tells fortunes. The fortune-teller's chatter and the charms of her companions so enchant and distract him that he gets robbed without realizing it. A rude awakening lies ahead, when he finds out that his pockets are empty, leaving him with nothing but his swashbuckling airs.
Hence the work is intended as a fabliau, a morality play. This sort of didactic painting was being produced at the time in Holland, and enjoyed favor in France and Italy, too.
However, the version proposed by La Tour is far more subtle. Note the faces: the old woman's is most craggy, while the young maidens' are totally smooth, similar to those of the Japanese in Noh drama. These faces are entirely static; they say nothing, but merely observe. For it is neither their mouth nor their eyes that speak, but their hands. The entire episode is played out at the level of their hands.
Let us examine the details involved.
Here we have the young man. He is perfectly self-satisfied: surely he has every reason to be, above his lovely white collar!
Next, the gypsy. Her eyes follow the young man. Her face has been smoothed to the limit, erasing all trace of modelling. It merely opens up onto two eyes, and onto a mouth that looks almost lacquered. The face seems all the more vivid through its contrast with the more structured white, black-lined material surrounding it.
A third face, that of the maiden towards the left, belongs to the most typically bohemian figure in the group, with her hair done up in a seemingly slapdash manner. Look carefully, and you will see how close it comes to Japanese calligraphy.
Let us leave their faces, wordlessly cut off from us in their hieratic arrangement, to seek out the event in their hands. Note the young man's hand as he finishes handing over the coin, the old woman's hand ready to pocket it, and those of the young maiden on the verge of snipping the gold chain. The entire situation is expressed in this play of hands. The gazes on the faces are mere pretexts, for it is the hands that carry out the real dialogue. Once more, we are reminded of Caravaggio. For, in his "The Vocation of Saint Matthew" a s well, it is the hands that express the mystery of the encounter, while the figures seem unaware of each other. The hand of the maiden on the left also participates in the action: she stealthily picks the young man's pocket. And, finally, we can enjoy the marvellously described embroidery on that maiden's sleeve and, behind the old woman's furrowed hand, the lush material draped over the latter's dress.
After The Fortune-Teller, we shall examine The Cheat.
This is another major genre painting, featuring another typically baroque and Counter-Reformation subject.