de la Tour, Georges: The Fortune Teller (c1630)

The Independent's Great Art series

According to the novelist Umberto Eco, the Parisian writers' group OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature) once constructed "a matrix of all possible murder-story situations, and found that there is still to be written a book in which the murderer is the reader". No surprise, perhaps. It would be hard for any whodunnit to implicate, in its fictional crime, the individual who happened to be reading it.

For a picture it is easier. Georges de La Tour is famous for his candlelit nocturnes, but The Fortune Teller is an image of daylight robbery. A fop is decoyed by having his palm read while three Gypsies are surreptitiously removing his valuables. What's going on behind his back is all before your eyes.

This painting was aptly used on the cover of a book called When Bad Things Happen to Other People, a study of schadenfreude. And you're certainly invited to take pleasure in the careful and graceful operation of this sting, as much as in the sumptuous rendering of the fabrics. But your view of things is not so detached. As you stand in front of this scene, you're made an accessory to its crime.

Consider the boy. He is undone especially by his propensity to pose. He has his gaze on the fortune-teller, but his attention is on the world out front. If he wasn't so conscious of being on view, he'd have more chance of seeing what was going on. Cutting a figure, with hand lightly on hip, it's as if he has made a mistake about what kind of picture he's in. The Fortune Teller is like a formal portrait – with added thieves.

Maybe his problem is partly embarrassment. An unworldly fop, surrounded by all this strange female attention, he is frozen by social/sexual awkwardness. (The interfering fingers, entering his pocket, handling his pendant, introduce a sexual subplot.) Either way, he strikes a pose, specifically to you, the viewer. You're his audience. You're not just a casual bystander-witness to a crime. You play the role of additional decoy for its unwitting victim.

Or consider the girl who clips off the boy's medallion. Her sharp eyes-right, combined with her straight face-front, is the most striking gesture of the scene. She could be shooting a glance to her accomplice. She could be keeping a careful eye on her prey. But in either case, why does she keep her face so firmly turned to the front?

The whole scene is on tenterhooks and hugger-mugger. The slightest nudge, or noise, or visible motion, will give the game away. The boy might turn round at any point. Even now, he can probably register, out of the corner of his eye, the girl's stance. It's important she gives him no cause for suspicion. Her face-front is a tactic, the position from which she can monitor her hands, her victim, her assistant, with eye movements only, no risky head movements.

The face-front is also a blind. It gives the boy the impression that she's looking in the same direction as she's facing – out at the viewer. It is the innocent direction in which to look. You're what she pretends to be interested in while otherwise occupied – and if he turns, that's where he'll find her looking. You are the alibi for her attention.

The viewer is not the doer of the crime, no. But you're implicated. You're inescapably put in the position of someone who's both a handy distraction for its victim, and a handy pretext for its perpetrator. You're an essential player in this theatre of complicity.

The artist

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) is a shadowy figure. Not much is known of his life.He worked in the Lorraine region of France, and somehow picked up the influence of Caravaggio. He first painted daylight scenes of mainly lowlife characters, then dramatic candlelit religious scenes. His observational techniques are miraculous, his scene-setting brilliant. Like Caravaggio and Vermeer, he fell into obscurity until the late 19th century. There's no certain likeness of him, but his signature, is most elaborate (see top right corner, above). The work is on loan to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, for another week.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'