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About the artwork

The Fortune Teller by Georges de La Tour is one of the most celebrated French paintings of the 17th-century, due to its intriguing subject. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has lent this fascinating and colourful masterpiece to the Walker Art Gallery in return for the Walker’s loan of its own French 17th-century masterpiece, Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion.

Georges de La Tour was born the son of a baker in Lorraine, an independent duchy sandwiched between north-eastern France and the German states. Although Lorraine was distant from the main western European artistic centres in Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, it had its own art scene under the patronage of Duke Henri II (reigned 1608-24). Two of La Tour’s first documented paintings were acquired by the Duke in 1623 and 1624. In the 1630s Lorraine suffered invasions and outbreaks of the plague. It was taken over in 1632 by the French, who imposed military rule and in 1638 partially destroyed the town of Lunéville, where La Tour had been based since 1621. This attack may have persuaded him to seek patrons elsewhere, especially at the French court in Paris. Certainly by 1639, when he returned to Lorraine, he was calling himself Painter in Ordinary to the King (Peintre ordinaire du Roi). King Louis XIII was known to admire contemporary French art and La Tour presented him with at least one painting, ‘a night scene with St. Sebastian’, a religious work, which the king reportedly kept in his bedroom.

Although only about 40 paintings have been attributed to La Tour (over a career that spanned 30 years) he appears to have been regularly in demand. He also had the good fortune to marry well in 1617.  The marriage (to a daughter of a recently ennobled silverware supplier to Duke Henri) gave him wealth and contacts at the Duchy court. From 1645 to 1652 he also received regular and lucrative commissions from the town authorities of Lunéville to paint New Year gifts for the French Governor of Lorraine, the Marquis de La Ferté-Sénectère (1600-80).  But he also knew about the low-life. His bad-temper, arrogance and unpleasant behaviour frequently brought him to the attention of Lunéville’s judicial authorities in 1640s. He may, therefore, have known something of the life of the fraudsters, thieves and dupes depicted in The Fortune Teller.

The old Gypsy woman is telling the man’s fortune by holding a coin over his open hand. Although the Fortune Teller appears to be a ‘genre’ scene, taken from real life, perhaps as witnessed in a street, it is more likely to be based on one of the popular street-theatre productions which are thought to have provided the source for other genre paintings by La Tour. The scene may also allude to the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son: the rich man’s son who wasted his money on wine, women and gaming, fell among thieves and ended up in a pigsty, before returning repentant to his rejoicing father. For the man has rich accessories - a silk sash, a medallion hanging from a gold chain whose links are inscribed ‘Amor’ and ‘Fides’ (Love and Faith) – but also dirty fingernails, so he may not be quite what he seems.

Gypsies were believed to have come originally from Egypt, hence their name (Gypsies + Egyptians) and exotic dress. They were often shown wearing cloaks or robes fastened over one shoulder and turban-like head-dresses. In The Fortune Teller the old gypsy’s flamboyant cloak, which is seemingly made up from strips of woven textile, has a special link to a painting in the Walker Art Gallery collection. The bold pattern on the lower section of her cloak shows hawks hovering over flowers and attacking white rabbits. The same pattern is also found on a carpet in the Virgin and Child with Angels by the 16th-century Antwerp artist Joos van Cleve (see Room 1). The cloth has been identified as a type woven in the German town of Cologne, not too distant from Lunéville and Antwerp. La Tour may have been hinting that the pattern shared the theme of the painting, as the hawk-eyed gypsies seem about to swoop on their frightened rabbit of a victim.

The painting is undated, but its prominent and elegant signature and inscription (top right corner) suggests a possible date. The inscription identifies La Tour in Latin as from Lunéville in Lorraine. Artists often specified their place of origin on a being sent to a place where they are unknown. So it is tempting to propose that The Fortune Teller was painted in the mid to late 1630s for a Parisian audience.  By 1650 it was apparently in the hands of a Parisian collector, Jean-Baptiste de Bretagne, where it had the highest valuation of 30 livres.

La Tour is now recognised as having created some of the most visually compelling images of his age. But during the three centuries after his death in 1652 he was almost entirely forgotten. The Fortune Teller was not rediscovered until 1948 in a private collection in central France, near Le Mans. Its late rediscovery is not unusual. La Tour’s work has been studied, exhibited and attributed only since the 1930s. New attributions have been made as recently as 1972 when a painting entitled The Dice Players was found in the collections of Stockton-on-Tees council. Nowadays La Tour’s simple, austere yet vivid compositions, the stillness of his figures and the exquisite tension he could bring to a story, appeal to modern taste. They are all exemplified by The Fortune Teller.