For the first time in Italy Georges de La Tour’s Nativity will accompany one of the French artist’s most celebrated works, St Joseph the Carpenter, for the now traditional exhibition at the Palazzo Marino organised by Eni in collaboration with the City of Milan and the Musée du Louvre in Paris. These two extraordinary works by one of the most fascinating artists of the seventeenth century, often called the “French Caravaggio‘, will be on display in Milan in the Alessi Room of Palazzo Marino, from 26 November 2011 to 8 January 2012, admittance free.


Also this year the exhibition has been organised thanks to the partnership between Eni and the Musée du Louvre, that has made the works available. The show, curated by Valeria Merlini and Daniela Storti, offers the public, which in recent years has responded passionately to this Milanese appointment, one of the most fascinating and mysterious artists of seventeenth century France. While his name may be less familiar that many of the “stars‘ of the history of art, when we look at these two outstanding works we have the immediate sensation of familiarity, of having always known them, thanks to their capacity to penetrate the consciousness of the viewer.


There is little documentary evidence about the life of the artist, whose training and background remain shrouded in mystery. There is a continuing hypothesis that he may have travelled to Italy where he came into contact with the work of the great Caravaggio, to whom reference is always made in any critical analysis of La Tour’s work. The Nativity was added to the collection of the Louvre in 1926 after being attributed to La Tour by Hermann Voss, the great German art historian who, in 1915, had brought the artist back from the oblivion into which he had fallen.

The theme of the nocturnal adoration of the shepherds was one that spread out from Italy, starting in the early sixteenth century with Correggio’s celebrated Adoration of the Shepherds, held in Dresden and commonly known as The Night. But, in the magical atmosphere of the work of Georges de La Tour, in the intimate and restrained domesticity of the scene, the Franco-Flemish stylistic tradition plays an important role. Also in the perhaps better known work, St Joseph the Carpenter, the warmth of the diffused light from the candle held by the young Jesus, who watches his putative father at work with admiration, is immersed in a night-time scene that was familiar to the Northern European tradition of the period. In the painting, the moving father-son relationship, also allows us to reflect on the iconographic character of the devotion to the Saint, the Son and the Cross, which is reflected in the work the Joseph is leaning over, in the manner of many of the religious texts of the period.

Also from a technical perspective the work is perhaps the best example of a body of “candlelit‘ work by La Tour. The light, which is hidden from the eyes of the observer by the hand of the Child and is spread across his face, which becomes the true source of the luminosity of a familiar and intimate scene, made transcendent. Visitors will be able to admire these two paintings against a dedicated backdrop, with carefully selected materials, that gives them the appropriate space to be fully appreciated.

The event

The event, which will for the fourth consecutive year peaceably and enthusiastically occupy the wonderful Alessi Room in Palazzo Marino, will give the citizens of Milan, and all those visiting the city for business or pleasure between 26 November 2011 and 8 January 2012, a unique opportunity to encounter recognised exemplars of great art. The exhibition, which is again hosted by the City of Milan and produced by Eni, in partnership with the Musée du Louvre in Paris, features, against a significant backdrop, two outstanding paintings by Georges de La Tour, one of the leading exponents of seventeenth century French painting and often referred to as the “French Caravaggio‘. 

The idea of presenting a slightly less well known artist, compared with previous years, was the result of the great interest shown by the public for the style and approach of this kind of exhibition, where the focus is on a single work where its exceptional characteristics can be highlighted through a wide-ranging examination of the detail and the use of extensive critical and didactic support.

While sticking to this principle, this year, in an effort to support the great interest the rediscovery of this artistic genius has generated, in agreement with the Louvre, the exhibition will feature not one but two works: Nativity and St Joseph the Carpenter, both part of the body of nocturnal paintings by the French artist.

The program

An extraordinary exhibition
from the Musée du Louvre to Palazzo Marino

Curated by
Valeria Merlini and Daniela Storti

Opening press conference
Friday, 25 November 2011 - at 12.00 noon

Press office
Exhibition press office
Lucia Crespi, tel. -

Eni press office
Rosella Migliavacca, tel. - cell. 345.67.75.323

City of Milan press office
Elena Conenna, tel. 02.884.53.314;
Ilaria Modanesi, tel. 02.884.50.406;

Aleart image design

Cinzia Manfredini, tel. 0372.22.046 - cell. 348.27.21.574

Official web sites


orn in Vic-sur-Seille in 1593, but living in Lunéville where he moved after a fortunate marriage, Georges La Tour was almost completely forgotten after his death. His son Etienne, the only one to have followed in his father’s footsteps, left alone, immediately closed down the family business and moved on to other things.

After centuries of oblivion it was the famous German art historian Hermann Voss who, in 1915, began the slow reconstruction of the artistic standing of the painter from the Loire who is now the centre of much scholarly attention. Even though there remains great uncertainty surrounding a presumed visit to Italy, the unmistakable echo of Caravaggio had reached France and La Tour clearly drew on its influence, even while, from a stylistic and technical point of view, remaining closely tied to the Nordic and Flemish tradition.

The surprising life of Georges de La Tour, the history of Loraine Lorena in the first half of the seventeenth century and the dramatic events that convulsed Europe in the period, will be illustrated in the context of scientific examinations of the painting technique by restorers and art historians to visitors to the exhibition at the Palazzo Marino, sharing with us the emotion of an encounter with two wonderful, intimate and silent masterpieces of enduring fascination.

Valeria Merlini and Daniela Storti
Curators of the exhibition


Nativity (L'Adorazione dei pastori), 1644 (?)
oil on canvas, 107 x 137 cm

Georges de La Tour's Nativity was most probably commissioned by the citizens of Lunéville in 1644 to welcome the arrival of their new governor, the Marquis de la Ferté.

Among the figures represented it is possible to identify anonymous portraits of city burghers and the painting itself corresponds to the relatively common form of the group portrait. It was common for Sacred Scenes, such as the Nativity, to feature local citizens and in this case we can identify, from left to right, the Virgin Mary, a shepherd with moustache with a staff in one had and carrying a lamb, a pipe-player about to remove his hat in a show of respect, a nurse holding a bowl of soup for the new mother and, finally, on the far right, Joseph who is placed in contrast to the figure of Mary and holds the candle that illuminates the scene. The light, however, also miraculously comes from the child in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, from which a divine glow emanates.

Everything takes place in a suspended atmosphere that is abstract, immutable and almost unreal. The Virgin is dressed in red and seems almost lost in intimate contemplation. The shepherd brings with him a lamb that meekly nibbles at the straw in the crib. The Epiphany of the Saviour has the effect of a suspended calm, also over the animal world. In particular the lamb symbolically reminds us of Christ's death and resurrection. While the figure of the piper is in the shadow, holding tightly onto his instrument while humbly raising his right hand to touch the brim of his hat.

It is a masterpiece that poetically reunites us with the mystery of the Nativity and with great technical skill illuminates the shadows of the past not only with formidable documentary power, but with a wholly pertinent communicative intensity.

St. Joseph the carpenter

St Joseph the Carpenter (San Giuseppe falegname), 1640 circa
oil on canvas, 137 x 102 cm

Two figures in a dark night-time scene: a young boy and an old man bent over his work. In Georges de La Tour’s painting St Joseph the Carpenter is assisted by an attentive and interested young Jesus. The child illuminates the carpenter’s ancient moves, shielding the flame of the candle with his left hand (from the artist and the viewer). On the ground, held down by the weight of Joseph’s foot, is a wooden beam in he is drilling a hole with an auger; and alongside the bean is a mallet and chisel. Highly poetic, almost metaphysical, even the curled woodchip is enhanced by the light of the candle.

This remarkable canvas has been dated at around the middle of the 1640s.

There is a clear reference in the painting to the symbolism of the cross on which, for Catholicism, salvation depends. The light emanating from the face of the child, himself the symbol of divine incarnation, highlights Joseph’s furrowed brow on which we can read his anguish about his son’s destiny.

Popular in seventeenth century painting, especially in the north of Europe, the subject displays a Flemish chromatic sensibility and Franciscan spirituality that are magisterially combined with one of the themes closest to the heart of Caravaggio and, before that, to Leonardo da Vinci: the juxtaposition of the old and the young. So, in this image of Joseph the painter seems to represent man’s acceptance of his destiny and an ability to humbly perform his work, while being guided by the light of Christ, where the resplendent purity of the inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven are reflected in the child.
A secondary thought, almost hidden inside this picture, in the beauty of the child, is one of the central tenets of the Christian message: to love one’s neighbour with the simplicity of a child; child whose eyes are full of curiosity and the amazement of one who is learning. There is a spiritual slowness that contrasts sharply with the tumultuous upheavals of war and plague with which La Tour was certainly familiar, which is reflected in the suffering, tearful face of the old artisan, the humble mediator between God and man.



The design of the setting for the “Georges de La Tour in Milan‘ exhibition is based on a series of conceptual and aesthetic considerations that recall much of the classic iconography of the Nativity, with the Baby Jesus being born in a stable, hut or cave; the Nordic architecture familiar to the artists, the simplicity and “humble naturalness‘ that are consonant with both of the subjects of these two masterpieces on display at the Palazzo Marino.

The logic of the design pointed in the direction of a sculptural architecture, unadorned but suggestive in terms of the scale and material effect, as well as the use of natural and traditional materials. The result is a composition made up of a large undulated plastered wall and an old wooden floor, and a “suspended‘ organism inside the Alessi Room, that use conceptually “poor‘ surfaces to enhance the atmosphere with lighting that emphasises the effect.

The design avoids any decorative intention and herein lies its strength. The effect is a counterbalancing of “neutral‘ simplicity and the formal elegance of the room, which guarantees respect for the poetics of the two works by La Tour. Details and background information about the works is displayed on a series of screens located in long, low rectangular boxes, to facilitate access for adults, children and the disabled.

In terms of the distribution of the space, the design respects the functional requirements of the show, above all the need to keep the two works separate, while also giving them equal “importance‘ in such a way as to ensure the best possible visibility and to facilitate the explanations of art historians and guides.

Elisabetta Greci

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