Friday, December 14, 2012

Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, 1595-98

Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller, 1593-95

Unable to get near the door of the Orangerie to see the Soutine exhibition because of the crowds, Tim and I executed plan B last Friday, and settled for an afternoon at the Louvre. I had recently read an article on The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599) and so, with Caravaggio on the mind, we headed up the great hall to find Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller (1593-95) or La Diseuse de Bonne Aventure as the French title card names it. 

Much is often made of this painting’s narrative: a young boy being seduced by a fortune teller as she surreptitiously takes his ring, he being so mesmerized that he is oblivious to her duplicity. It is true, there is an eroticism to the touch of his hand which is made ven more compelling by the warm light coming through the window to the left of the painting. But what seduces the viewer of The Fortune Teller is not the narrative, it’s the light and the fabrics of the clothes worn by the young man especially, in Caravaggio’s demonstration of wealth, social status, the boy’s naievety and the woman’s deception.
Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew, 1599
The light coming in from the window somewhere to the left and in front of the scene is glorious. As in his later masterpiece, The Calling of St Matthew, in which light evolves from compositional force to the very subject of the painting when Christ’s presence envelops Matthew, the light in The Fortune Teller does so much more than simply illuminate the clandestine scene. Light bathes their actions in a soft erotic glow. The light defines the boy’s face, making him cherubic, naïve and innocent. It also accentuates the texture of his gloves, the stitching, the frills on his collar and cuffs, and every hair in the feather on his hat. The sword, the feather, the fabrics, including the boy’s skin and the woman’s fingernails overtake the substance of the woman’s deceit. And if colour is enabled by paint as light, let’s not forget the rich caramel of his jacket, the warm yellow of the wall, the beautiful folds of his gloves. 

The other curious detail that keeps the viewer transfixed is the relay of looks between the two characters. Neither of them looks at the other. Their looks both miss the other’s line of sight very slightly, giving them both a self-containment, and thus, a distance from each other. And then there is the “look” or momentum created by the painting. Our eye is drawn up towards the window that does not exist, from where the sun is coming. The source of the light might be said to be the true centre of the painting, which might explain why the two human figures are pushed back by the light, towards the right of the composition. Again, as if in a preface to The Calling of St Matthew four years later, the light streams in as the compositional energy and the source of all delight on this canvas.

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