Great Works: Penitent St Jerome (1628-30) by Georges de la Tour

National Museum, Stockholm

A naked woman of an uncertain age sitting on a kitchen chair": that was the disparaging phrase used to describe an unadventurous artistic subject in the middle of the 20th century. You could find this plain life model in any art school or evening class, and you still can. But you could once find her, or occasionally him, as a pure example of art. Stillness, observation, discipline: this was the name of virtue. Some dismissed it as a very conservative and limited project. Others took up the cause of strict realism as probity, an antidote against all the wild experiments of Modernism.

In the early 17th century there were arguments too. The school of Caravaggio introduced naturalism, insisting on painting from life. At the time it was revolutionary. But contemporary critics had reservations. What about stories, feelings? "In narrative compositions and in the interpretation of feelings, which are based on imagination and not direct observation of things, mere copying does not seem to be satisfactory." If everything had to be observed from studio poses, life models couldn't produce a lifelike scene. It meant immobilising the figures, leaving them "entirely without action". A sitter is one thing, but a drama? Well, perhaps there is a way round.

Look at Georges de la Tour's Penitent Saint Jerome. He is a life model if anyone is, an old man holding a studio pose, impersonating a holy man in his cell. He bends creakily on one knee, with his bare and shrinking skin. He has his Bible, skull, hat, robe, cross and scourge, but he is visibly a study in stillness. He is divided between a character and a simple body. But notice among his props one particular detail. He lets that bloody, twisted, knotted scourge hang down so that its tip bends just onto the floor-surface. The rope rests there, like a question mark, making a neat little show of itself.

Its position is sensitive. We see this curl of rope, clearly isolated in an empty area of floor. It lies only just grounded, in precarious contact with this surface, with an artfully abbreviated shadow darting off to the right. In other words, the rope's present position points to a change. La Tour judges its placing carefully, establishing a rope-ground contact that is definite, but not quite established. Its touch is on the verge of being broken. A small twitch would lift it.

A small twitch is at hand. This rope dangles from a living human grip. The old man's wrist might tremble. We see a physical situation as potentially fragile. Or equally, you might see the lash as provisionally laid down, ready and waiting for the next stroke. The Saint is biding, and about to strike again. The rope's touch would now register, not as contact that could be easily broken, but as a provisional rest to be imminently broken.

How you the read the touch of the rope affects how you read the Saint's whole body. Precarious contact implies shaky behaviour, liable to be broken sometime. Temporary contact implies deliberate behaviour, planning to act soon. One way, his stillness is trying to keep stable; the other way, he is in control. Is he holding on weakly, or pausing between strokes? The grip of that hand is ambiguous. Is it frail or firm?

The picture offers a comparison in some other hanging cords, also red, also just touching down: the tassels of Jerome's cardinal's hat. (Their fringes break on the brick directly behind his fist, though their contact is not fragile; they merely dangle, they aren't held in a hand.) But what different fibres, what a different red! Sumptuous scarlet accessory is set against coarse bloody scourge! The gist of the contrast may be that this great father of the Church was at the same time a humble penitent; or the tassels stand as a glorification of the lash; or some other Christian paradox of grandeur and abasement.

The echo is certainly clever. But these tassels don't much improve the picture. It would be better if the scourge were dipped onto the floor all by itself, undistracted by the big hat - because it holds within its own gesture a more vivid paradox, a junction of cruelty and gentleness. How softly the tip of the gory rope bends onto the ground. How different this surface-contact is from its future stinging assault on the Saint's skin. (An implied attack only: from what we can see, the Saint's body is so far quite unwounded, unbloodied.) It's a beautiful detail, this conditional still life. The rope's touch-down makes a point of tender rest, which points to and points up its prospective violence.

But still, the crucial drama in this scene is not the gentleness of the rope's ground contact, but its precariousness, the consequent uncertain state of the model's pose. Seventeenth-century criticism could be sceptical about the stationary studio poses. They created problems in a narrative scene. So it seemed to leave the artist in a dilemma: either inert scenes from life, or dramas from imagination. But there was an alternative. Observational art can find its own drama, in the life model's own troubled attempt to hold a pose. The human figure trying not to move is potentially a highly charged subject.

La Tour's scene holds a tense immobility. But it also meshes with the Saint's story. It needs the rope, for one thing, the body's antenna. And its static figure acquires a religious motive. The old man is an employed model, simply staying still, being observed and painted. And he is St Jerome, on his knees, and his stillness shows his pious calling. This studio job becomes a penance in a cell, a precise correspondence between the strain of posing and a penitential act.

About the artist

Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) is a shadowy figure. Not much is known of his life. He worked in Lorraine. Somehow or other picked up the influence of Caravaggio, perhaps through Dutch influence. At first, he painted daylight scenes, mainly of lowlife characters and cheats. Later his works become atmospherically candle-lit scenes, religious subjects, glowing out of darkness. He was involved in a Franciscan religious revival in Lorraine. His observational techniques, rendering flesh and material and light, are miraculous. His scene setting is brilliantly calculated. But he keeps his emotional distance from his human models, and his figures are rigidly stationary. Like Caravaggio, like Vermeer, but even more so, he fell into long obscurity. He was only discovered in 1915. Subsequently, he has become one of the leading French paintings of the golden age. There is no certain likeness of his face. His signature, however, is the most ostentatiously calligraphic of all the old masters'.

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