As we enter the European wing of the Portland Art Museum (PAM), we are immediately beckoned towards a dark room at the end of the gallery. We see a sign that reads “Masterworks | Portland: George de La Tour” and, as we move closer, what appears to be a woman illuminated by the flame of a candle. The mysterious room and figure that resides in it compel us to wonder: who is she? She is Mary Magdalen, depicted in George de La Tour’s painting “The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame” circa 1635-37. This is the sixth installation of PAM’s ongoing series titled “Masterworks” and is on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s collection until Oct. 13.
The series allows PAM to exhibit major artworks that would typically be inaccessible to them by borrowing pieces from other institutions. In other words, it brings seminal works into the eyes of the Portland community. Previously, they have hosted works by revered artists such as El Greco, Titian and Raphael, among others. While displaying a single painting on its own can strip it from its context, PAM compensates for this with their several thoughtful and informative plaques spread throughout the room. They recite the history of Mary Magdalen, Georges de La Tour’s career, an analysis of this painting as well as his many other renditions of Magdalen.
La Tour is a French Baroque painter of the 17th century and is regarded as a master of light. He was devoted to the dramatic effect created by the sharp contrast between light and dark, similar to artists such as Caravaggio. His paintings often possess a single source of light in a nocturnal scene to achieve this. Furthermore, he was highly concerned with naturalistic representation, a style that seeks to truly translate what we see in the word, which contrasted the idealistic conventions of many of his contemporaries. He lived during a period of religious strife and lived to see the Catholic Reformation; thus, much of his work dealt with religious content as most art at the time did.
Magdalen was La Tour’s most frequent subject, and he painted her at least four times. In Christian Gospel, she is thought to be one of Jesus’ first followers, and one of those most devout. She is said to have witnessed both his crucifixion and burial and was the first person to announce his resurrection from the grave. Throughout Christian history, she has been used as a divisive political tool by opposed sects of Christianity. Some even believe that she used to be a prostitute prior to her conversion. She is also known to have renounced herself from the world and the implicit sin of living in it, submitting herself to complete isolation to reflect and atone. This is the condition La Tour focused on in his depictions of her. She is seen as a paradigm of what it truly means for a person to accept the Lord in their heart in Christian theology.
As noted by the plaques, this painting is in remarkable condition with its rich color and nuance of detail still fully intact. Naturally, the organizing element of the painting is its convincing depiction of light that illuminates a dark space. Magdalen stares off into the bright flame of the oil candle located on the desk. La Tour’s obsessive attention to detail is remarkable. We can see everything from the flicker of light reflecting from Magdalen’s black eyes to the flame of the candle softly transitioning into a smoke trail that splits in two. An orange glow even emanates from within the plume of her transparent white blouse on her right arm. While the effect of the light is intense, “The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame” maintains a calm, solemn atmosphere.
The illusion La Tour produces is so convincing that it pulls us into the very space of the painting, as if we were there reflecting with Magdalen herself. If we allow ourselves to get lost in this imaginary realm, we can almost feel the heat radiating from the candle warming our skin. As PAM mentions, this candle is not merely a random object that fancies Magdalen’s attention, rather it symbolizes the eternal truth of the Christian God.
“The flame principally symbolizes the light of divine truth in reference to Jesus’s declaration: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12),” PAM said on a plaque.
In fact, they note that all of the objects placed in the painting signify something greater than their material existence. The oil in the lamp alludes to the fleeting existence of human life and the unavoidable fact that it will end. The whip that lays atop the cross and pours over the table, in addition to Magdalen’s blouse being pulled down, implies repentance through self-flagellation. And the most obvious symbol is the skull that she eerily cradles in her lap. It is a memento mori, or a reminder of death.
The setting of the exhibition space, the subject of the painting and the manner in which it is depicted all encourage us to do one thing: reflect. This word is used in its darkest sense, for we are challenged to face the bleak fact that all of our mortal lives must come to an end. Magdalen may be looking forward to that day. She does seem awfully comfortable with the human skull in her lap, handling it as if it were her loyal pet companion. The same may not be said for us, though it could be. Interact with this painting and see what you decide.