Videos ()
The Path of Nature: Collecting Off the Beaten Path


The Penitent Magdalen

Georges de La Tour (French, Vic-sur-Seille 1593–1653 Lunéville)

ca. 1640
Oil on canvas
52 1/2 x 40 1/4 in. (133.4 x 102.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1978
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    A sinner, perhaps a courtesan, Mary Magdalen was a witness of Christ who renounced the pleasures of the flesh for a life of penance and contemplation. She is shown with a mirror, symbol of vanity; a skull, emblem of mortality; and a candle that probably stands for her spiritual enlightenment. The style of La Tour, a native of the duchy of Lorraine in eastern France, is much indebted to Caravaggesque painting. The contrast of candlelight and shadow, the pure geometry of form, and the meditative mood characterize the pictures for which he is famous.

  • Catalogue Entry

    This painting, also known as the Magdalen with Two Flames, is one of several versions of the subject by La Tour. Others include the Repentant Magdalen (National Gallery of Art, Washington); the Magdalen with a Lamp (Musée du Louvre, Paris); and the Magdalen with the Smoking Flame (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). A fifth composition, the Magdalen Reading, was sold at auction in 1981 (Maître Claude Aguttes, Clermont-Ferrand, September 26, 1981; sold again, Hôtel des Ventes de Neuilly, Neuilly-sur-Seine, June 23, 1998), but doubts exist as to whether it is a copy or a poorly preserved original.

    It was characteristic of La Tour’s creative process to concentrate on a theme and make different renderings of it, often portraying the same subject with significant alterations in design and mood. The four autograph Magdalens are of similar dimensions, all represent the saint as a seated, full-length figure, and all include a skull and lighted candle or lamp, yet they show different aspects of her reformed life. The MMA painting shows the moment of conversion and Mary Magdalen's renunciation of the worldly life. Its effect depends upon subtle contrasts between the shadows on the wall and the lit profile, the skull and the jewelry scattered on the table and on the floor, and the flame and its reflection in the silver mirror. A subsequent moment is seen in the closely related Paris and Los Angeles canvases, where she is depicted with a still life of sacred books, a cross, a scourge, and an oil lamp with a smoking flame. Finally, the Washington canvas shows the saint as a hermit contemplating the vanity of life: the light is behind the skull, which we see reflected in the mirror. Of all the different versions, the MMA painting is the most elegant, largely because of its luxurious trappings and the graceful turn of the head, but it is no less convincing than the others as a depiction of spiritual atonement.

    Benedict Nicolson noticed that the mirror frame seen here is similar to one depicted in a portrait of Anna Eleonora Sanvitale, dated 1562, by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, in the Galleria Nazionale, Parma (Fahy 1973). Paul Levi pointed out that the appliqué decoration on the frame of the mirror resembles the ormolu work on a cabinet in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, by Christoph Angermair (ca. 1580–1633) or his circle (see Nicolson and Wright 1974). The discarded earrings are identical to those worn by the seated woman in La Tour’s Cheat with the Ace of Clubs in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth (Cuzin 1997).

    Two Magdalens are mentioned in early sources, but neither of them can be connected with the surviving canvases (Fahy 2005, p. 150 n. 9). In the absence of documentary evidence, the dating of La Tour’s Magdalens must remain speculative. According to recent theories about the artist’s chronology, the Wrightsman canvas is placed about 1640 (Cuzin 1997).

    [2011; adapted from Fahy 2005]

  • Provenance

    private collection, bordering the Lorraine, France, [according to Ref. Pariset 1963] (by at least 1890; moved by son to the Côte d'Or in 1920, where it remained until 1963; sold to Heim); [Galerie Heim, Paris, 1963; sold to Wrightsman]; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York (1963–78)

  • Exhibition History

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Painter's Light," October 5–November 10, 1971, no. 7 (as "The Penitent Magdalen," lent anonymously).

    Paris. Musée de l'Orangerie. "Georges de La Tour," May 10–September 25, 1972, no. 19 (as "'La Madeleine Wrightsman' dite aussi 'Madeleine aux deux flammes,'" lent by M. et Mme. Charles Wrightsman).

    Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "Georges de La Tour," October 3, 1997–January 26, 1998, no. 39 (as "'La Madeleine pénitente' dite aussi 'La Madeleine aux deux flammes' ou 'La Madeleine Wrightsman'").

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Conversion by Candlelight: The Four Magdalens by Georges de La Tour (1593–1562)," February 10–March 15, 1998, no. 4.

  • References

    François-Georges Pariset. "La Madeleine aux deux flammes: Un nouveau Georges de La Tour?" Bulletin de la Societé de l'Histoire de l'Art Français (1961–62), pp. 39–44, ill., proposes attributing the picture to Georges de La Tour and believes it is a late work; despite its seemingly modern design, views the ornate frame of the mirror as a product of La Tour's imagination, recalling engravings by Jaques Callot of around 1630 and Abraham Bosse of around 1640; interprets the discarded jewelry as a sign that the saint has only just renounced her wordly life; discusses the picture's provenance from about 1890.

    François-Georges Pariset. "La Madeleine aux deux flammes." Le Pays Lorrain 43, no. 4 (1962), pp. 162–66, ill., calls the picture "La Madelaine aux deux flammes" and reports that cleaning has confirmed its attribution to La Tour; remarks that the jewelry at the saint's feet recalls the gold braid worn by the young man in La Tour's "Fortune-Teller" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); compares it stylistically to his "Flea Catcher" (Musée Historique Lorrain, Nancy); notes that after restoration the saint's profile appears identical to that of the Virgin Mary in an engraving attributed to Jean LeClerc.

    Charles Oman. Letter to Francis Watson. November 9, 1965, dates the design of the mirror frame and brass candlestick about 1630; identifies the frame as metal, probably silver but possibly silvered or tinned brass, based on the way the ornaments overleaf the mouldings.

    Francis Watson. Letter to Theodore Rousseau. November 23, 1965, dates the design of the mirror frame about 1630.

    Benedict Nicolson. Letter to Anne Poulet. June 10, 1969, based on the tendency towards geometrical forms in the arms and skirt, and the design of the sleeves, assigns our picture to La Tour's middle period, the early to mid-1630s; considers it contemporary with the "Flea Catcher" (Musée Historique Lorrain, Nancy) and places it between the "Hurdy Gurdy Player" (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes) and the "Newborn Child" (Musée des Beaux–Arts, Rennes); groups all La Tour's Magdalens within this same period

    Denys Sutton. "Pleasure for the Aesthete." Apollo 90 (September 1969), p. 232, no. 4, ill. p. 233, as probably from the 1630s.

    Hidemichi Tanaka. "L'oeuvre de Georges de La Tour." PhD diss., Université de Strasbourg, 1969, pp. 73–75, 123, 165, dates the picture about 1625–28.

    John Walsh Jr. The Painter's Light. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1971, p. 6, no. 7, ill., dates it about 1645.

    Hélène Adhémar. "La Tour et les couvents lorrains." Gazette des beaux-arts 80 (October 1972), pp. 219–20, ill., posits a relationship between La Tour's Magdalens and the convent of Notre-Dame du Refuge, founded at Nancy in 1624 for "filles débauchées," who were urged to venerate the Magdalen; suggests that the Wrightsman Magdalen may be an evocation of the order's founder, Marie Élisabeth de Ranfaing, or some other nun from the convent.

    Anthony Blunt. "Georges de La Tour at the Orangerie." Burlington Magazine 114 (August 1972), p. 520, indentifies the Wrightsman picture as the earliest of La Tour's Penitent Magdalens, dating it between 1643 and 1645.

    Julián Gállego. "Crónica de Paris: La Tour Iluminado." Goya (July–August 1972), p. 37.

    R[obert]. H[ughes]. "An Analytical Stillness." Time Magazine (July 3, 1972), p. 53.

    François-Georges Pariset. "L'Exposition de Georges de La Tour à l'Orangerie, Paris." Gazette des beaux-arts 80 (October 1972), p. 209.

    Pierre Rosenberg and Jacques Thuillier. Georges de La Tour. Exh. cat., Orangerie des Tuileries. Paris, 1972, p. 177, no. 19, ill. p. 176, colorpl. 46 and frontispiece, groups it stylistically with the "Flea Catcher" and "Christ and Saint Joseph in the Carpenter's Shop" (Louvre, Paris), dating the three between 1639 and 1643


    Jacques Thuillier. "La Tour: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow." Art News 71 (Summer 1972), p. 25.

    Everett Fahy in "Paintings, Drawings." The Wrightsman Collection. 5, [New York], 1973, pp. 135–43, no. 15, ill. p. 137 (color), figs. 1–4, 7 (details), assigns it to the artist's middle period, the decade of the 1630s; notes that the same candlestick reappears in La Tour's "Dream of Saint Joseph" (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes); credits Benedict Nicolson with the observation that an early example of the type of mirror frame represented in the picture can be seen in the "Portrait of Anna Eleonora Sanvitale" (Galleria Nazionale, Parma) by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, dated 1562.

    Julius S. Held. "The Emergence of Georges de La Tour." Art in America 61 (July–August 1973), pp. 86–87, ill. in color p. 82.

    Pierre Rosenberg and François Macé de L'Épinay. Georges de La Tour: vie et oeuvre. Fribourg, Switzerland, 1973, pp. 56–57, 148–49, 154, no. 40, ill. (color, overall and details), interpret the iconography of this earliest episode in the Magdalen's conversion as a meditation on the theme of vanity, rather than mortality; state that the picture's vigorous coloring and strict geometry distinguish it from La Tour's early nocturns, while its refined technique precludes a late date; date it between the "Dream of Saint Joseph" and the "Flea Catcher", stressing the closeness of the latter composition


    François Solesmes. Georges de La Tour. Lausanne, 1973, pp. 97, 100, 159, ill. p. 96 (color), relates the "Flea Catcher" to La Tour's Penitent Magdalens, specifically the Wrightsman picture

    Jacques Thuillier. L'opera completa di Georges de La Tour. Milan, 1973, p. 94, ill. and colorpls. 42 and 44 (overall and details).

    Benedict Nicolson and Christopher Wright. Georges de La Tour. London, 1974, pp. 36, 38–39, 41, 47, 174, no. 28, ill. (overall and details), propose a date about 1638–40; credit Paul Levi with the discovery of an ormolu picture frame attributed to the circle of Christoph Angemair (d. 1633) in the Bayerishes Nationalmuseum, Munich, which bears a strong stylistic resemblance to the mirror frame depicted here


    Christopher Wright. Georges de La Tour. London, 1977, p. 8.

    Katharine Baetjer and Dean Walker in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1975–1979. New York, 1979, p. 51, ill. (color), date it between 1638 and 1643.

    Benedict Nicolson. The International Caravaggesque Movement. Oxford, 1979, p. 64, pl. 56 [2nd ed., rev. and enl. by Luisa Vertova, "Caravaggism in Europe," Turin, 1989, vol. 1, p. 134; vol. 2, pl. 906].

    Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 302, 324, fig. 543 (color).

    Pierre Rosenberg. France in the Golden Age: Seventeenth-century French Paintings in American Collections. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1982, pp. 75, 253, 355, ill. [French ed., La peinture française du XVIIe siècle dans les collections américaines, Paris, 1982].

    Thierry Bajou. De La Tour. 1985, p. 65.

    Pierre Rosenberg and Marion C. Stewart. French Paintings 1500–1825, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. San Francisco, 1987, p. 60.

    Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. rev., enl. ed. New York, 1989, p. 390.

    Philip Conisbee in The Ahmanson Gifts: European Masterpieces in the Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles, 1991, p. 50, ill., states that the Wrightsman Magdalen has the "abstract quality" of La Tour's work of the mid-1640s.

    Agnès Lacau St Guily. La Tour: Une lumière dans la nuit. Paris, 1992, pp. 102–03, ill. (color, overall and detail).

    Jacques Thuillier. Georges de La Tour. Paris, 1992, pp. 158–61, 290, no. 51, ill. (color, overall and details), discusses the picture's condition; states that it was discovered in the Côte d'Or by H[ubert]. Comte in 1961.

    Geneviève Rodis-Lewis. "Les Madeleines de Georges de La Tour." Regards sur l'art. Paris, 1993, pp. 71–84.

    Julián Gállego in Los músicos de Georges de La Tour (1593–1652). Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, 1994, pp. 43–44, ill.

    Élisabeth Martin. Georges de La Tour ou la nuit traversée: Colloque organisé à Vic-sur-Seille à l'occasion du quatrième centenaire de la naissance de Georges de la Tour. Metz, 1994, p. 22.

    Anne Reinbold. "Examen en laboratoire et histoire de 'art." Georges de La Tour ou la nuit traversée: Colloque organisé à Vic–sur–Seille à l'occasion du quatrième centenaire de la naissance de Georges de La Tour. Metz, 1994, pp. 38–39, notes that there is no documentary or physical evidence to suggest that the Wrightsman picture was the first of La Tour's Magdalens


    Jean-Claude Le Floch. La Tour, le clair et l'obscur. Paris, 1995, pp. 34–35, ill. (color), identifies the Wrightsman picture as the first of La Tour's Magdalens; interprets the mirror, framed like a canvas, as a metaphor for the art of painting


    Philip Conisbee et al. Georges de La Tour and his World. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, pp. 109, 111–14, ill. (color), dates the picture between 1640 and 1644, shortly after the Louvre "Penitent Magdalen"; suggests a meaning for the candle in a quotation from Daniel Cramer's 1624 "Emblematum Sacrorum", where an emblem showing a skull surmounted by a candle being lit by a divine hand illustrates "the light shines in the darkness" (John 1:5) and is accompanied by Cramer's verse "sad and pale death cannot frighten whoever becomes familiar with it by frequent reflection; but with Christ in my heart I can overcome it; it is he who will reilluminate my light after death".

    Jean-Pierre Cuzin in Georges de La Tour. Exh. cat., Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. Paris, 1997, pp. 202–5, no. 39, ill. (color, overall and details), notes that the Magdalen's discarded earings are identical to those worn by the seated woman in the "Cheat with the Ace of Clubs" (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth); dates the picture between the "Dream of Saint Joseph" and "Christ and Saint Joseph in the Carpenter's Shop"

    Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Dimitri Salmon. Georges de la Tour: Histoire d'une redécouverte. Paris, 1997, pp. 85, 87, 91, 105, ill. (color).

    Sylvie Germain. "Solitudes de Madeleine." L'Oeil 489 (October 1997), pp. 80–89, sees La Tour's paintings of the Magdalen as representing the lover as depicted in the Song of Songs.

    Jean-Pierre Cuzin in Le Saint Sébastien soigné par Irène de Georges de La Tour. Exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Orléans. [Orléans], [1998], pp. 13–14, fig. 9.

    Georges de La Tour [Hôtel des Ventes de Neuilly]. Hôtel des Ventes de Neuilly. 1998, pp. 13, 16, ill.

    Pierre Rosenberg. La Tour. Milan, 1998, pp. 82–83, ill. (color, overall and detail).

    Bruno Ferté in La luce del vero: Caravaggio, La Tour, Rembrandt, Zurbarán. Exh. cat.Milan, 2002, p. 100.

    Jean-Pierre Cuzin in Georges de La Tour. Exh. cat., National Museum of Western Art. Tokyo, 2005, p. 82, fig. 16-8, under no. 16, pp. 202, 209–10, 227, fig. 23 (color).

    Everett Fahy in The Wrightsman Pictures. New York, 2005, pp. 146–50, no. 41, ill.

    Keith Christiansen in Philippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 34.

    Everett Fahy in Philippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 32, fig. 44 (color).

    Jean-Pierre Cuzin. Figures de la réalité: Caravagesques français, Georges de La Tour, les frères Le Nain . . . [Paris], 2010, pp. 215, 218, 244, 257, 259, fig. 215 (color), reprints Refs. Cuzin 1998 and 2005.

    Jean-Patrice Marandel in Corps et ombres: Caravage et le caravagisme européen. Exh. cat., Musée Fabre, Montpellier and Musée des Augustins, Toulouse. Milan, 2012, p. 470 [English ed., "Caravaggio and His Legacy", Los Angeles, 2012, p. 153].

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History