The Blind Hurdy-Gurdy Player1620 - 1630. Oil on canvas, 86 x 62.5 cm.
The blind man appears in profile playing his hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument with which he earns his living. Despite his miserable state, La Tour depicts him with considerable dignity, dressed in a cape that hides a chestnut vest and salmon-colored trousers. His face shows the mark of time, with tanned skin, deep wrinkles and an unkempt beard. His strong hands seem out of place for a musician but may recall the work he did before losing his sight. Amidst all of this roughness, the artist surprises us with a delicate yellow ribbon wound around the lower part of the instrument to bind the top of the wheel moved by the crank in his right hand. The space in the background is divided into three sections by clearly delineated oblique lines. The left section is practically black and is precisely the part that brings out the musician’s face, sharply silhouetting his features and reinforcing his solitude. The close physical resemblances between all of the beggar musicians painted by La Tour, as well as the one in the Musicians’ Brawl in Los Angeles, suggest that the artist drew repeatedly on a model over a long period.
Ever since it was discovered, specialists have accepted Pierre Rosenberg’s theory that this is a fragment of a larger painting that presented the blind musician in a position similar to the one in the picture that hangs in Nantes. However, there is nothing in this work to confirm that idea. In fact, La Tour frequently did half-length paintings of single figures -either standing, like the Albi Apostles or sitting, like the Magdalene at the Mirror, which is known through a print. She, too, appears in three-quarters with her face in profile. Moreover, the striking foreground in the Prado’s painting is perfectly congruent with the latter compositions, in which La Tour eliminated accessory or trivial elements to offer a more intense and transcendent view of the subject.
La Tour portrays a real scene in which a blind man earns his living by playing the hurdy-gurdy. They sometimes sang their poems as well, if they had that skill, and they were frequently accompanied by a small dog that danced to their music. One such dog appears indifferent to his master’s music in the version in Bergues. Curiously, all of La Tour’s depictions of blind musicians except the one at the Prado have been attributed to Spanish painters at some point, despite the fact that, as Sebastián Covarrubias noted in his Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (Treasure of the Castilian or Spanish Language, Madrid, 1611), for his contemporaries the hurdy-gurdy was an instrument of poor Frenchmen.
Blind hurdy-gurdy players often appear in La Tour’s paintings, although they vary too much to be considered copies of each other. Some are full-length depictions of standing musicians, sometimes with their little dogs, like the abovementioned work in Bergues; others, including those in Nantes and the one at the Musée Charles Friry in Remiremont, are fulllength images of a seated musician accompanying his singing with the hurdy-gurdy. The Prado’s work is undoubtedly La Tour’s last depiction of a blind musician and also his last-known daylight painting. The time that separates these works in his career sheds some light on his stylistic evolution. The earliest known version is the one in Bergues, which Jean-Pierre Cuzin described as austere and tragic, as the artist did nothing to hide the model’s wretched state and shabby clothing. The Prado’s painting reflects an entirely different sensibility. In its lyricism, it is closer to other contemporary works, such as Saint Joseph the Carpenter and The Dream of Saint Joseph, which are certainly among his most poetic images. Other artists from Lorraine, including Jacques Bellange and Jacques Callot, made etchings of this subject, but their relationship to La Tour’s paintings has yet to be convincingly established (Text drawn from Úbeda de los Cobos, A.: Georges de La Tour. 1593-1652, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016, p. 144).