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Work Saint Joseph the Carpenter

Department of Paintings: French painting

Saint Joseph the Carpenter

© 2008 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

French painting

Guillaume Kazerouni

Saint Joseph, the patron of carpenters, is working on a beam before the Infant Jesus who already appears to see in it the wood of his cross.

The story of a gift from London to Paris

The painting appeared in 1938, shortly after the spectacular rediscovery of the work of Georges de La Tour. At the time it belonged to Percy Moore Turner, a great English merchant who offered the work to London’s National Gallery, which failed to raise the necessary funds. The painting remained with its owner who donated it to the Louvre in 1948 in memory of his friend Paul Jamot, the former chief curator of the department of Paintings, who passed away in 1939. Ever since, it has featured among the artist’s most admired works.

A flame in the carpenter’s workshop

A descendant of the house of David, Joseph, husband of Mary and “foster father” to Christ, was a carpenter in Jerusalem. The cult of Joseph enjoyed a great revival from the 16th century thanks to the Jesuits, the Franciscans, and Saint Teresa of Ávila, who reformed the Carmelite Order. Here the carpenter is leaning forward, busy drilling a piece of wood with an auger, to the light of a candle held by Christ whose face is radiant in the large flame. The arrangement of pieces of wood on the floor evokes a cross and prefigures Christ’s sacrifice. These elements refer to three devotions that were particularly important in Lorraine in the 17th century through the impetus of the Franciscans: Saint Joseph, the Infant Jesus, and the Cross.

A purple passage

The technique, as well as the emotion exuding from the image, makes this painting a true purple passage. The painter compares the uncouth, imposing physique of the old man and his anxious gaze with that of the child, thereby highlighting the latter’s purity. This contrast is enhanced by the strong light reflected on Christ’s face that in turn appears to light up the room. A similar process frequently recurs in the work of Georges de La Tour to indicate a divine presence in a scene taken from everyday life and portrayed with veracity. The resultant effect is both highly restrained and one of striking visual impact. Moreover, the painter reveals the measure of his talent in astonishing details such as the candlelight traversing the child’s hand or the fine still life in the foreground made up of a tool and a wood shaving.

Technical description

  • Georges de LA TOUR (Vic-sur-Seille, 1593 - Lunéville, 1652)

    Saint Joseph the Carpenter

    About 1642

  • Oil on canvas

    H. 1.37 m; W. 1.02 m

  • Deeded gift of Percy Moore Turner, 1948 , 1948

    R.F. 1948-27

  • Paintings

    Sully wing
    2nd floor
    Georges de La Tour
    Room 912

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