Georges de la Tour - Joseph as a Carpenter

by Alexandra Tuschka


In an intimate scene, lit only by a candle, old and young face each other in a friendly manner. Joseph is seen here doing his work as a carpenter - he is working on a piece of wood. Opposite him sits a young child - Jesus - on a box. He is holding a candle with his right hand, his left hand shields the light, so that the picture has only this one, inner source of light. His face is extremely friendly, his eyes are open, his mouth shows a smile or is about to say something. And the gesture of giving light alone, testifies to his will to support the aged Joseph in his work and is also of a symbolic nature. The latter, in turn, is depicted bent over, frowning and seeming to look into the light. His rolled-up sleeves, apron and simple leather sandals show him as a typical craftsman. Without the title naming the scene, we could have been dealing with a genre piece. This also made it easy for the simple viewer to identify with the characters.

We are dealing with Joseph, not the biological father, but the foster father of Jesus. The work on the wooden beam in which he drills a hole can now be seen as an indication of the boy's fate; the furrowed brow and the looking over as foreboding. While Jesus' bright illumination can also be interpreted symbolically, the human aspect of his existence becomes clear in the dark fingernails, which are clearly visible. However, the fact that the candle, which is also highly symbolic, had primarily aesthetic purposes is shown by the use of this light source in de la Tours' other night pieces, which do not always show only saints. Rather, the painter devoted himself masterfully to the challenge of making the image glow from within. Furthermore, his night works are usually characterised by an undefined, dark background and the strong shadows within the picture, which also increase the drama.

It is interesting to observe the development of the figure of Joseph on the canvases. For a long time he played only a supporting role. If we look, for example, at The Quiet on the Run, the two protagonists are clearly Mary and the baby Jesus, Joseph is chopping nuts in the background. He was clearly neglected here not only in his activity but even in the composition. In the scene of the "Flight into Egypt" he was still allowed to carry the provisions, pull the donkey or perform similar helping activities. In this picture, de la Tour dedicated half the canvas to him and even the picture title, although present, does not mention the boy Jesus. This valorisation of his person took place from the end of the 16th century, partly through the teachings of Teresa of Avila.


Now we find Joseph more present on the canvases and sometimes playing the leading role.

He is often shown in his carpenter's workshop as a simple but good and industrious craftsman. The old age that characterises Joseph's iconography is also connected with the aim of making the Immaculate Conception seem improbable to the viewer.


Georges de la Tour - Joseph as a Carpenter

Oil on canvas, 1645, 137 × 102 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris


Georges de la Tour - The Choirboy

Oil on canvas, 66.7 x 50.2 cm, Leicester Musem & Art Gallery


Gerard David - The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Oil on wood, c. 1510, 45 × 44.5 cm, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.