A blind Hurdy-gurdy Player1620 - 1630. Oil on canvas, 86 x 62.5 cm.
Completely unknown until it appeared on the London art market in 1986, this work was studied and published for the first time in 1990 and is unanimously considered one of the most important additions to La Tour’s catalog in recent decades. It is part of a larger canvas in which the figure must have been seated and probably showed the entire body. Today, only the central part remains. Perfectly distributed on the canvas, although it lacks parts of the original composition, this work is of irreproachable quality in both its conception and its execution.
The model employed is of a common type: depictions of 17th-century European beggar musicians that accentuate the pathos of their tragic blindness in order to overwhelm the viewer. The figure appears in profile, with a bare forehead and unkempt beard, mustache and hair. Under his broad cape he wears a modest frock coat and a shirt whose worn neck serves as the base for a solid head. The instrument on his lap is a rather coarse hurdy-gurdy with decorative geometric incisions. His right hand grasps the handle while his left rests on the keys. His slightly open mouth and the placement of his fingers suggest that he is singing and playing at the same time, as was the custom among errant entertainers of his time.
La Tour efficiently emphasizes certain details of the personage to convey the ravages of time and poor living conditions, rendering his wrinkled skin, partially bald pate, limp, gray hair and tangled beard with loose but precise brushstrokes. His long eyebrows accentuate his sunken eyes, but there is still energy in his hands -especially the right fist that firmly grasps the upper end of the hurdy-gurdy. Here, La Tour’s technical rigor dominates the image without any excesses. Its expressionist touches fall short of caricature, thanks to a contention dictated by the artist’s sensitivity, which imbues the model with unforgettable nobility. In terms of color, the painter achieves a happy combination and mutual exaltation of colors and highlights, assigning a leading role to the latter. The combination of implacable truth with emotion is palpable in the brutal naturalism and narrative indifference that characterize this artist’s first works, with their cold and unreal, practically abstract daylight.
This work can be related to other similar paintings by La Tour (at museums in Nantes, Brussels, Remiremont and Bergues), as well as with his Musicians’ Braw (Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum). However, the present canvas from the Prado Museum has the most elaborate technique and the greatest expressive intensity, and its combination of successful craft and spiritual depth led Rosenberg to consider it one of the most audacious of the group, and possibly the last of this series of beggars. He further speculated as to the existence of a companion work with a female figure. Its masterful maturity suggests that it was painted between 1625 and 1630 (Text drawn from Luna, J. J.: El Prado en el Ermitage, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011, pp. 104-105).