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Ukraine: Realistic 17th Century Art Features Work From Lviv

  • Robert Lyle

Washington, 28 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - For the first time in 25 years, a major exhibition of the works of one of the greatest painters of the 17th century -- Georges de La Tour -- has been mounted. The Washington D.C. exhibit features as a centerpiece a very important La Tour painting lent by the Lviv, Ukraine, Picture Gallery.

La Tour lived in the duchy of Lorraine -- present day France -- from 1593 to 1652 and was a fairly successful artist of his day. However, after his death, his prominence faded and for 300 years he was virtually forgotten. His paintings were seen in public museums and private collections, but they usually identified as coming from other artists, including Velazquez, Rembrandt or most frequently Caravaggio.

It was only in the early 1900s that French scholars began to dig into this "unknown" artist and started to discover the rich trove of his work that had been mislabeled for nearly three centuries. The first exhibition of La Tour's work was staged in 1934 in Paris, at a time when a mere dozen of his paintings had been identified.

Nearly 40 years passed before the first major La Tour show could be mounted in Paris. In that 1972 landmark exhibition, 32 pictures were displayed. One of those discovered to be a La Tour in 1972 was also the earliest known work of the artist, "The Payment of Taxes," held by the Lviv Gallery in the then-Soviet Union.

That picture, a large 99 by 152 centimeters, had not left Lviv since that 1972 exhibit, but was considered essential when the U.S. National Gallery of Art decided it was time for another La Tour exhibition. More paintings have been discovered in 25 years -- La Tour's known works now total about 40 -- and 27 pictures, including all those found since the Paris show, are included.

The American gallery's curator of French paintings, Philip Conisbee, describes the painting owned by the Lviv as "a rare, beautiful" piece that was essential for this second major exhibition of La Tour's paintings.

"It's marvelous to have this picture all the way from Ukraine," he told an opening day crowd.

La Tour's work is best known for his realistic portrayal of scenes from everyday life in the early 1600s, focusing on beggars, musicians, cardsharps and common folks.

The painting "The Payment of Taxes" portrays an elderly man paying a debt or tax to a rather tough-looking group of people gathered around him and a table onto which he counts his coins. The scene, set 0at night with only a single candle sitting on the table to illuminate the windowless room, suggests stressful, even threatening circumstances.

The chief curator of Paris' Louvre, Jean-Pierre Cuzin, says one of the things that fascinates art historians about this painting is the "warping of perspective." Writing in the exhibit catalogue, Cuzin says the painting's point of view is from above, "which accords such prominence to the table's surface and the still life resting on it." It features a bold geometric composition with diagonal lines opposing the axes of the figures, simplification of forms by distinctive lighting and a pictorial surface "filled to its very edges."

As significantly, say curators, La Tour's depiction of people is strongly realistic, emphasizing skin texture with wrinkles, unkempt hair and sinewy fingers. Cuzin says that the discovery of this painting in 1972 "overturned most of the hypotheses that had persisted until that time regarding La Tour's chronology" because it showed that by 1620 he was an accomplished artist.

In his later years, La Tour shifted his emphasis to religious works, mostly portraying saints but still in very realistic terms.

Conisbee says the exhibition shows that La Tour's work was "intensely serious and often rather melancholy." He says: "We are reminded that he lived and managed to work in a corner of France that was ravaged by war throughout most of his career. This depredation of the countryside brought famine, and transient troops brought the plague."

Conisbee says there is a "harshness of vision" in La Tour's secular work and an "almost desperate intensity about his religious ones."

National Gallery Director Earl Powell Jr. says that because virtually nothing is known of La Tour's training or early artistic travels, the exhibition was expanded to include a number of works of contemporary artists to show the influences that he could have experienced as a developing painter.

Key among those is the picture "The Lamentation of Christ" by Jacques Bellange, painted around 1616. This work, loaned for the Washington exhibit by the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, has the same dark tones as the painting from Lviv, with a single candle providing the only illumination of a wounded Jesus Christ sitting on a table surrounded by a crowd of people that fills the picture surface.

Conisbee says Bellange, a preeminent artist in Nancy, France, during the first two decades of the 17th century, was La Tour's "most likely model and teacher."

Borrowing the picture from the Hermitage only continues an "historic" relationship between the U.S. Gallery and the Russian, says Conisbee. In the 1920s, when American industrialist Andrew Mellon was organizing the collections that became the gallery, he purchased a number of pictures from the Hermitage which were sold off by Stalin.

Conisbee says that one of those pictures, Jan Van Eyck's "Madonna and Child," will be loaned back to the Hermitage next year to serve as the centerpiece of an exhibition the Russian museum is mounting.