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
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high