Signed in the top right corner “G. de La Tour Fecit Luneuilla Lothar,” the late discovery of this work sent shock waves through the art world. Officially identified in 1948 as a work of De La Tour’s, the painting was immediately proposed to the Louvre in France, with whom secret negotiations began in haste. Word broke out about these negotiations, alerting a man once described as “the richest and most powerful art dealer on earth.” The infamous Daniel Wildenstein instantly doubled Louvre’s bid, securing the painting for 7.5 million Francs. He would keep The Fortune Teller hidden for over eleven years, before giving it to the Metropolitan Museum where it is now beautifully exposed for all to see. With its moralist depiction of intrigue and suspicion, it is highly fitting that The Fortune Teller by George De La Tour had such a dramatic arrival of subterfuge and secrecy.
With a plain backdrop, De La Tour immediately draws our eyes to the characters in the center of this work, notably, the young man whom the gypsy women seem to frame. This proud young man stands with his hand open, anxiously awaiting the revelation of his future from the old gypsy. Although he is standing tall and proud, his suspiciously squinted eyes and sideways stare clearly demonstrate his trepidation. Indeed, notice how the man’s hand is not fully open, but rather curled back somewhat with apprehension.
Yet, his apprehension is entirely misplaced for it is not the fortune teller’s actions of whom the gentleman should be wary. It is in fact the younger, more gentle-looking women who are slyly robbing him of his possessions. One is surreptitiously taking his jeweled pendant, while behind him, another woman takes his purse from his side.
Ultimately therefore, George De La Tour presents in The Fortune Teller a classic moralist fable – very popular in the 17th century. The prodigal son ventures alone, yet fails to adequately see the threats around him. Placing his trust in appearances, he fails to realise that appearances can easily deceive. Thus, his material possessions are robbed from him, and he is destined to return to his father’s arms after losing his wealth. Of course, this subject matter was not original for De La Tour. It could even be argued that the subject of the young man appeared in another painting by De la Tour, namely the Cheat (both renditions).
This painting remains one of the greatest pictorial works in history. From the extravagance of the old woman’s dress (made from a ridiculous pattern but absolutely exquisite in its textile) to the tenderness of the young man’s hand, to the delicacy of the drapery of the surrounding woman, or even the perfection of the mask each woman wears.. It’s theatrical and thrilling resurfacing stands as a testament to De La Tour’s great skill.