When this painting was offered in 2010 (see Provenance
), the head of Saint Sebastian had been painted over as a book, so it appeared to be a woman reading (fig. 1). Once cleaned, the true subject was revealed and scholars were able to narrow in on an attribution to Paul La Tarte.
Very little is known about La Tarte's life. He died in 1636 in Pont-à-Mousson in Lorraine and his name appears in a number of old collection inventories from the area. Lorraine produced a number of important artists in the early 17th century, including Jacques Callot (1592-1635), Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), and Georges de la Tour (1593-1652). While most of these artists spent time in Rome, it is unclear whether La Tarte ever traveled to Italy. He certainly, however, was aware of the Caravaggist style that spread beyond Rome after the painter's death in 1610.
One of the most significant pictures to be attributed to La Tarte is the Musical Party
in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (fig. 2).1
When it was acquired in 1994, the work was attributed to "an unknown master from Lorraine" and it wasn't until 1997 that it was accepted as a La Tarte.
The subject of the present painting is taken from the legend of the saint and martyr Sebastian, who, after being discovered as a Christian by the Emperor Diocletian, was ordered to be shot by arrows and left for dead. The widow Irene nursed him back to health and with renewed faith in Christ he again confronted the Emperor. Though more common depictions of Sebastian show him having been shot with arrows, tied to a tree or column, La Tarte chose to paint a more tender part of the story, when Irene was nursing him back to health. Interestingly, one of the most famous depictions of Irene tending to Saint Sebastian is by La Tarte's fellow Lorrainian Georges de la Tour (fig. 3).
1. Inv. no. NM 6890, oil on canvas, 116 by 98.8 cm. For further discussion on the attribution of the Stockholm picture, see G. Cavalli-Björkman, "A Musical Party by Paul La Tarte, a Little-Known Painter from Lorraine," Konsthistorisk tidskrift, vol. LXVI, Oslo 1997, pp. 233-239.
2. Oil on canvas, 104.8 by 139.4 cm., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. See P. Conisbee, Georges de la Tour and His World, New Haven 1996, cat. no. 16, reproduced p. 86.